From time to time the subject of street names comes up in Alexandria. In her older, but still essential book, “History of Old Alexandria,” Mary G. Powell first wrote about the origins of the names. The first set of streets paid tribute to the Mother Country - Duke, Prince, King, Cameron, Queen, and Princess. There would be no Duchess, as the planters felt the need to pay homage to Oronoco - the type of tobacco harvested and shipped to London.
In 1867, the Washington National Intelligencer looked across the river to its ex-partner and observed the streets were “consecrated with Revolutionary glory.” Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Pitt (after William Pitt, Lord Chatham), Patrick and Henry, Fayette (for the beloved French General Marquis de Lafayette) - a stroll through the city was a civics lesson itself.
But with such a pantheon of greats, it’s easy to see why a few of the patriots have gotten lost in the shuffle.
For me, I have always wondered (and confess I had total ignorance) about Wythe Street. Eight blocks north of busy King Street, it stretches from the Braddock Road Metro down towards the waterfront. Passing by the Alexandria Black History Museum and the Charles Houston Rec Center, it runs through the heart of the Parker-Gray neighborhood.
On several occasions, I thought to myself - Who was this person? How did one pronounce his name? (Apparently, “with”). And when the city double-named part of it “Parker-Gray Way,” was this a nod to some kind of connection between Wythe and black history?
I finally got down to business and spent some time looking into the life of Wythe. Let’s take a look and see.
George Wythe (1726-1806) was born at Chesterville, the family plantation whose site is east of Jamestown. (Although it is not located in proximity to the plantation, there is a Wythe neighborhood in Hampton).
Unlike some of the sons of the privileged class, Wythe did not sail to England for a formal education. Instead, his Quaker mother taught him at home. After attending the Grammar School at William and Mary, Wythe began a long love affair with the law.
In 1746, Wythe made his way to Williamsburg, which had replaced Jamestown as the capital in 1699. The town stood on a higher point, symbolic of its stature as the center of the universe for the wealthy and powerful in the colony of Virginia. It was there Wythe passed the test, took the oath, and became a lawyer.
Wythe took his first cases as an apprentice barrister in Spotsylvania County (Fredericksburg). In his PhD Dissertation (“George Wythe, The Colonial Briton: A Biographical Study of the Pre-Evolutionary Era in Virginia”), William Edwin Hemphill points out it is not known why he ventured to “this strange upland region.”
Wythe worked under the tutelage of Zachary Lewis. The young man gained not only knowledge, but a bride. Ann was the daughter of Lewis. They were married in 1747. Then Wythe learned how quickly life’s fortunes can change. Ann died eight month later.
Wythe staggered back to Williamsburg and soon was appointed to the House of Burgess. This gifted mind now had its place in the inner circles of the Virginia colony.
Wythe began a career that would earn many accolades. There’s way too much ground to cover. His career is best summed by these summaries.
- "Virginia's foremost classical scholar, dean of its lawyers, a Williamsburg alderman and mayor, a member of the House of Burgesses, and house clerk."
- "The colony's attorney general, a delegate to the Continental Congress, speaker of the state assembly, the nation's first college law professor, Virginia's chancellor, and a framer of the federal Constitution."
- “Had an enormous influence on Thomas Jefferson.” – Annette Gordon Reid.
- Spent five years living and tutoring Jefferson, who called him, “My faithful and beloved mentor in youth, my earliest and best friend.”
- Influenced Jefferson to collect books and gave him his collection in his will. Some of Wythe's books are at the Library of Congress.
- Served with Jefferson, Mason, Thomas Ludwell Lee, and Edmund Pendleton on a committee that revised Virginia's laws.
- Some of his more famous law students over the years were Henry Clay, James Monroe, and John Marshall, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
- "Rare Virginian to argue that the races could peacefully live together in freedom as equals." - Alan Taylor. The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War.
- "The first American law professor."
- "In Hudgins v. Wright, Wythe single-handedly tried to abolish slavery through judicial interpretation."
- "Father of American jurisprudence.”
- "Preeminent in the list of Virginia's revolutionary founding fathers."
As far as the city naming Wythe a street because it went through a black neighborhood, this is unlikely. Almost from the start Alexandria had black neighborhoods throughout the city. But “Uptown,” later named Parker-Gray, emerged much later. A map from 1797 shows Wythe Street already named.
As far as how Wythe felt about slavery, we have the case of Hudgins v. Wright.
Here is a summary from the William & Mary Library.
Several slaves (the Wrights) petitioned for their freedom, citing they were entitled to freedom because they were descendants of a free American Indian woman.
Hudgins contended that the Wrights were descendants of an enslaved woman of African lineage and an American Indian man, and therefore not entitled to freedom from slavery.
Chancellor Wythe concluded that all of the Wrights were various shades of white, and therefore entitled to their freedom. Furthermore, Wythe stated, "freedom is the birth-right of every human being" as indicated by the first article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, "our political catechism". Therefore, Wythe concluded, the burden is always on the person claiming ownership to prove that the other person can be bound by slavery.
This gives us a great historical "What If?" What if Wythe’s ruling was upheld?
It wasn’t. Judge St. George Tucker of the Virginia Court of Appeals overruled his finding.
Wythe turned 80 in 1806. His life was taken that year, a murder that shocked the nation. The Colonial Williamsburg Journal has a detailed account of what happened.
In 1803, George Swinney, the grandson of Wythe’s sister, had come to live with Wythe. The thought was the young man would benefit from the elder’s wise counsel and example. Swine, though, proved to be a bad apple, stealing property and money from Wythe and gambling it away. Wythe rewrote his will and cut Swinney’s amount in half. Swinney found this out and poisoned not only Wythe, but also Lydia Broadnax, his domestic helper and her 16-year-old son Michael Brown.
The living arrangements in the household were not without precedence but certainly stood out in Richmond society. Wythe had freed Broadnax in 1787. She moved to Richmond and lived in one of their free black communities. She earned money working for Wythe and ran a boarding house. Wythe educated Brown, something that also likely raised eyebrows.
Broadnax survived and gave investigators key information about the poisoning. She paid taxes. But under Virginia law she could not testify against a white person.
All the evidence pointed to a guilty verdict but the lack of a witness to Swinney’s actions that morning made the difference. The jury found him not guilty.
Julian Boyd, an editor of Thomas Jefferson’s papers observed:
Surely there is irony in the fact that the death of the great and benevolent Chancellor, who believed that kindness and freedom for Negroes were for the best interests of his beloved Commonwealth, went unavenged by his native state in part because of this legal repression of Negro evidence.” – Julian Boyd
Wythe’s death, a painful one, came on June 6, 1806. He was laid to rest in Richmond, in the churchyard of St. John’s Episcopal Church. About fifty years earlier, Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech at the church.
Although Nat Turner and John Brown certainly tried to ignite the flames, enslaved black Americans had no big rebellion (There was Hayti in 1791). Some individual efforts, however, tell us how strong the desire for liberty burned within.
In 1742, Lewis, the lawyer who trained Wythe and was a planter himself, took a case to court. His overseer had been murdered by one of his slaves, who then took his own life. A few years later, a slave woman poisoned her owner who experienced the slow horrific drag to mortality took Wythe’s life. The court ordered her execution. Like Joan of Arc, she was burned to death in public.
Source: On the Road to Lake Anna, Virginia Johnson, Library Point, Central Rappahannock Regional Library.
We may never know what George Wythe was thinking about these two cases. Perhaps they were part of a change in his world view, or strengthened his beliefs.
When we praise patriots like George Wythe, it’s always with the knowledge that most of them owned slaves. Some made great profits off the backs of enslaved persons. Try as we might, it seems impossible to reconcile these differences.
Still, Wythe does stand out. I believe somewhere in both his heart and his mind, he truly wanted to see human rights applied to whites and blacks.
Therefore, a historical marker for him in Alexandria’s historic black district, and somewhere along the street named after him, is most appropriate.
Note: Many thanks to the Library of Congress for providing their list of Wythe books donated by Jefferson.