Artifacts found on University property once belonging to free African-American family
Articles by Dan Heuchert
Foster Family Site Linked to History of University
Two hundred years ago, little was remarkable about the farmland along the western edge of the village of Charlottesville. That is, until Thomas Jefferson proposed building his long-sought college atop one of its hills.
“The … area and surrounding vicinity south of the Academical Village is inextricably tied to the development of the University of Virginia,” according to a November 2003 report prepared by Rivanna Archaeology. The report was written to catalog the fieldwork and documentary research done on the site formerly owned and occupied by Catherine “Kitty” Foster, a free black woman, and her descendants, from 1833 until 1906.
The origins of the University and the development of the surrounding town can be pieced together from a wealth of surviving documents. John M. Perry, a part-time farmer and carpenter, sold parcels of his 670 acres of undeveloped farmland to the Rector and Visitors of Central College — soon to be renamed the University of Virginia — in 1817 and 1820. He held onto most of the remainder.
He sold off about 18 acres just south of Wheeler’s Road — the path of the modern-day Jefferson Park Avenue — to James W. Widderfield, a carpenter’s apprentice who, like Perry, was involved in the construction of the University. Widderfield then sold 2 1/8 acres to Abner Hawkins, who likely built the first structure on the land. Hawkins, too, is believed to have been involved in the construction of the University.
“It appears that by the end of the first quarter of the 19th century, a small but concentrated residential community of skilled contractors and subcontractors to the University, a veritable carpenter’s row, had developed south of Wheeler’s Road adjacent to the Academical Village,” the report states.
Hawkins’ land later passed to a local merchant, John Winn, in settlement of a debt. Winn apparently rented out the residence there. By late 1826, construction of the University was nearly complete, and many of the workers moved away or sold their property, creating a housing glut. Winn finally sold his land in late 1833 to Catherine “Kitty” Foster.
Little is known about Foster’s life before she purchased Winn’s land. She was born sometime between 1790 and 1795, perhaps into slavery. Slaves often took on the surname of their masters; in the late 1700s, Henry Foster of Albemarle County is known to have owned a slave named Catherine. He died in 1795, passing young “Cati” on to his widow, Elizabeth.
Foster is next mentioned in the 1820 census. By then, she is listed as the head of a household containing two boys and two girls, all under the age of 14 and described as “black.”
A University record gives a clue to Foster’s activities before 1833. An October 1832 receipt shows a Professor Turpin requesting the proctor of the University to pay Kitty Foster $4 for “washing before commencement.” The report suggests that Foster may have been renting the Winn property while serving as a laundress for faculty and students.
After purchasing the property, Foster “presumably continued to wash clothes for students and faculty, possibly being helped by her daughters,” according to the report. Her sons were indentured to local craftsmen or skilled workers.
Upon Foster’s death in 1863, her will subdivided the land among some of her children and additional houses were built. With the advent of commercial laundries, the daughters apparently took up seamstress work.
The Fosters’ presence at the University’s margins was not unique; in fact, records show that free black families were living on Grounds while providing services to students and faculty.
By the last quarter of the 19th century, the area around the Foster tract was occupied predominately by blacks, and came to be known as “Canada,” likely a reference to the country where slaves were formally emancipated by Great Britain in 1843.
After the Rotunda burned in 1895, the University’s rector directed the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White — hired to redesign and rebuild the Rotunda — to close off the south end of the Lawn with additional buildings (Cabell, Rouss and Cocke halls) to block the view of “the area immediately to the south of the University’s land and in full view … filled with unsightly houses.”
Already, though, the Canada neighborhood was beginning to lose its identity as a black enclave. “By the late 1880s, land adjacent to the University of Virginia and the route of the new Charlottesville City and Suburban Railway line was considered quite valuable,” according to the report. White speculators began buying up the land in Canada, and by 1920 it was predominately white-owned.
By 1906, the Foster family property was sold to white developers. A clause in one of the deeds reserved the right to relocate the family cemetery from the property, but that apparently was never done. The graves were eventually covered over and forgotten until their discovery in 1993.
Source: “The Foster Family-Venable Lane Site: Report of Archaeological Investigations,” prepared for the University of Virginia by Rivanna Archaeological Consulting, October 2003.
2005 by the Rector and Visitors