By Margo Khosravi
Many people who are familiar with Clifton, Virginia, know that the picturesque little railroad town owes its existence to a northerner from New York who arrived on the scene shortly after the Civil War ended. Much has been written about Harrison G. Otis, a man with a vision, who made the first payment on the purchase of a 1001-acre tract of land in 1867 that had been part of the estate of William E. Beckwith. Many also know that Beckwith, a white plantation owner, left the remaining 200 acres of his estate to 16 slaves when he died in 1863. Fewer people realize, though, that Beckwith considered those slaves to be his family. Two of them were his natural children. Freed by the terms of his will, some of them went on to play an integral role in the formation of the village of Clifton.
I first became aware of the relationship between the Beckwith family and the slaves ten years ago when I came across the deposition of John Beckwith in which he stated, “…I am therefore the son and was the slave of William E. Beckwith, who never married but had four children born to him by my mother.” Intrigued (and sobered) by the revelation, I determined to learn more of the story.
Researching the history of African Americans who lived in the early 1800s can be challenging. Prior to the Civil War, there wasn’t much in the way of recordkeeping, and because so few were able to read or write, documents such as letters and diaries are rare. Like the title character of Ralph Ellison’s novel, they are seemingly “invisible.”
William E. Beckwith was born in Fairfax County in 1785. He was the grandson of Sir Marmaduke Beckwith of the Northern Neck and the son of Marmaduke the Younger and his wife Sybil Ellzey. William’s father’s plantation was located where Whitehall Farm is today, between Newman and Colchester roads.
In 1810 William fathered a son, John, with a slave named Sophie, belonging to William’s mother, Sybil. Shortly thereafter, Sophie was sent away by Sybil to a neighboring plantation. Sophie had three more children while living there–Willis, Harriet, and Cornelia. Upon the death of Sybil in 1825, William purchased Sophie from the estate and brought her back to live with him on land he had begun acquiring in the early 1800s. His home, a log cabin, was located behind today’s Clifton School. Three more children were born to William and Sophie–Caroline, Alfred, and Mary. Willis, Harriet, and Cornelia took the surname “Ellzey,” while John, Alfred, Caroline, and Mary went by “Beckwith.”
The relationship between William and Sophie was probably a love match, given the fact that William never married a white woman. He of course would not have been able to marry Sophie because of anti-miscegenation laws in effect in Virginia since 1691. Almost three centuries would pass before the Supreme Court of the United States, in Loving v. Virginia (1967), would strike down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage and allow a union such as William and Sophie’s to be possible legally.
In the 1850s, William freed his daughters, Mary and Caroline. When his son John inquired about the possibility of his freedom, he was told by his father that he couldn’t spare him; he was needed to help run the plantation. John was permitted to come and go on the estate as he pleased and he functioned as an overseer. The second son, Alfred, must have been more scholarly because Beckwith taught him to read and write. These details were related to me by Alfred’s great granddaughter, Laurence Hughes Nolan, a recently retired law professor from Howard University.
[Clifton] recently renamed its playground park in honor of Harriet and William Harris. In light of the fact that the park land actually belonged to them, and the significant part that they played in the early history of Clifton, it is a well-deserved tribute. The town also plans to erect two informational markers that will list the names and detail some of the contributions of the others. The “invisible” will be invisible no longer.
Harriet Ellzey had “married” William Harris in the 1840s. Little is known of William’s background. He was not listed as a slave of Beckwith, but neither is he found in the Registration of Free Negroes in Fairfax County. Most likely he came from a community of Free Black people, many with the surname Harris, who owned property nearby.
By the time of Beckwith’s death, William and Harriet had seven children together. The 16 people listed in the will were Harriet and her children Joshua, Coleman, Sarah, Sophie, William, Llewellen, and Charlotte; Cornelia and her children Amanda, Lewis, Jane, and Isaac; and John, Alfred, and Willis. Harriet and Cornelia apparently lived with their children as family units on the estate. All were living north of the railroad tracks.
After the war, the 200 acres south of the tracks designated in the will was parceled out among the 16 formerly enslaved people. Harriet and her seven children were allotted an 8/16th portion. She and William constructed a house on part of their land and lived there with the children, thus becoming the first family to live in the newly forming village of Clifton. They subdivided another part of their land into ten lots, which they began selling. They also provided a lot for the building of the Primitive Baptist Church, which stands today, and which functioned as the first schoolhouse for the African American children of the area.
The town recently renamed its playground park in honor of Harriet and William Harris. In light of the fact that the park land actually belonged to them, and the significant part that they played in the early history of Clifton, it is a well-deserved tribute. The town also plans to erect two informational markers that will list the names and detail some of the contributions of the others. The “invisible” will be invisible no longer.