Robinson House

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Robinson House
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AFRICAN-AMERICAN HOUSEHOLDS FROM
MANASSAS NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD PARK

The Robinson House

bulletAlso see the National Park Service website for more information on the Robinson House
The Robinson House site was the home of a free African-American family, the Robinsons, from the late 1840s through 1936.  The home site is now situated on a portion of Manassas National Battlefield Park.  Archaeological investigations conducted during the mid-1990s documented this little-known aspect of the Manassas Battlefield's history.

[Text and Images derive the from National Park Service, Regional Archeology Program Virtual Exhibit "African-American Households from Manassas National Battlefield Park."]

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Historical Background

James Robinson, also known as "Gentleman Jim," was a free African-American born in 1799.  James and a slave named Susan Gaskins had six children, all born into slavery. Susan and four of the children were the property of John Lee, a resident of the Manassas area. Eventually, Robinson purchased two of his sons from Lee. The remainder of his family was legally entrusted to Robinson upon Lee's death in 1847. Robinson constructed his house in the 1840s, and the family made structural additions through 1926. The original house is believed to have been completely removed during the 1926 renovations. The Robinson house stood until 1993 when arsonists burned part of the structure.  A University of Maryland graduate student worked with the National Park Service to analyze the archaeological materials at the site.

Archaeological Excavations

Archeological excavations at the Robinson House site were performed in 1995 and 1996 and focused around and within the existing house foundations and in the outlying yard areas. Excavations uncovered the base and a portion of the hearth to the 1840s Robinson house chimney, located a few feet to the west of the existing 1926 foundations. This find provides the first documented evidence of the 1840s structure. In addition, archeologists located a Civil War era barn, a possible root cellar, foundations to an unidentified outbuilding, and the remains of an ice house, later used as a trash pit by the family.

Artifact Analysis

Artifacts found at the Robinson House site indicate that the Robinson family retained a portion of their African identity. Mancala gaming pieces excavated from the site are typically small, diamond-shaped objects fashioned out of broken ceramic and glass sherds. Mancala, derived from the Arabic word manqala meaning, "to move," is documented as one of the most widely distributed board games in the world.  Different versions of the game have been found in the Near East, Egypt, West Africa, and the Caribbean. Also called Adi, Adji, Awale, Awele, Awari, Ayo, Ayo-ayo, Gepeta, Ourin, Ourri, Oware, or Wari, the game is played by distributing  gaming pieces into holes or cups. Approximately two dozen gaming pieces were found in areas around the house foundation ruins and in the backyard.

Conducting an analysis on the collection of glass and ceramics from the Robinson family provides the opportunity to study what types of goods the family used during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They had a wide variety of decorative ceramics, as well as individual matched sets for the dining table and for serving tea. The tablewares, as well as the decorative ceramic items the family had in their home, indicates their knowledge of popular dining and decorative items used during these time periods.

Glass items indicate the family used mass-produced goods, particularly the large quantities of brand name items such as Listerine, Noxema, Lysol, Dillís Flavoring Extracts, Pepsi Cola and other sodas, and Carterís ink bottles. Archeologists also identified a number of home food storage and preservation vessels. Practicing home food preservation may have been part of this farming familyís lifestyle and allowed them to be more self sufficient. Studying these artifacts reveals that the Robinson family strove for American civil and material opportunities like their white counterparts during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whereas previous generations of African-American families had limited access to the consumer marketplace due to slavery and economic privation.

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