One person called the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, a preservation group dedicated to saving even the most forlorn historic buildings in the city. Executive Director Jennie Knapp decided to try to rescue the slave cottage. But the clock was ticking.
The owners had planned to demolish the cottage Monday, Oct. 14. Knapp heard about the plans the Friday night before. Working frantically, she and the staff of ACORN managed to contact the owners and delay the demolition. When the owners heard the house's story, she says, they told her, "We do not want to be the ones to tear this down."
In the end, ACORN decided to pay the $12,000 needed to move the house. Last Friday, it was taken off its foundations and placed in a temporary spot (kept secret by ACORN to protect it from vandals). Now the group is looking for a permanent site for the house and someone who wants to renovate it.
In 1866, a white family deeded the house, along with 100 acres, to a former slave named Emily Winfrey, Knapp says. She lived there until her death in 1905. Some in the neighborhood call the cottage "the Poe cabin," because an old picture shows what may be the cottage near a larger house that may have belonged to Edgar Allan Poe's family.
ACORN has yet to confirm the Poe connection, but Knapp says the cottage nonetheless is a rarity. "There aren't that many [slave houses] left," she adds, "because they weren't regarded as being worth anything." Her group is trying to change that, she says, with a recently launched project to save overlooked examples of African-American architecture in the city.
The most pressing need, Knapp says, is to stay one step ahead of the bulldozer. "Instead of dealing with everything at the 11th hour, like this cottage or Jackson Ward or the Armory," she says, " let's get in and do something."
Melissa Scott Sinclair