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Photograph in Montgomery Museum Collection Has Story To Tell

Photograph of group, Christiansburg, 1886. Jane Carter at far right [#6] (photograph was donated to the museum in 2013 by Henry Jablonski as part of the Charles Crush Collection)

In his recently released book, Facing Freedom, Dr. Daniel Thorp uses a variety of sources, including the Montgomery Museum’s collection, to piece together the history of the local African American community. A closer look at one of the resources in the museum’s collection used by Dr. Thorp, shows us the way historic photographs provide detail and richness to past lives when placed in the context of history.

The photograph, taken in 1886, shows 26 adults and 3 children posing on the front porch of the Figgat House at 10 East Main Street in Christiansburg. The people photographed include several prominent white citizens, many of them related to Dr. Joseph Edie [#1].

Dr. Joseph Edie (1727 – 1887) arrived in Christiansburg in 1826 as a teacher and was instrumental in the organization of Christiansburg Presbyterian church the following year. He completed medical school and returned to the town in 1832, purchasing a former tavern at 30 West Main Street for his office and residence.

The owner of the house shown was Mary (Mollie) Edie Figgat (1836 – 1923, [#5]) a daughter of Dr. Edie and the widow of Dr. William Figgat (1835 – 1878). Another of Dr. Edie’s daughters, Jane Edie Wade (1826 – 1912, [#3]) is also pictured with her husband, Captain John Wade (1829 – 1889, [#2]). John Wade served in the Confederate “Stonewall Brigade” and was county clerk from 1881 until 1887. At a time when few women were involved in the public sphere, Jane Edie Wade operated Mrs. J. H. Wade Store from the late 1880s until 1911 in her father’s former home and medical office. She also served as deputy county clerk during her husband’s tenure as clerk.

Pictured in the back row is Ada A. Schaeffer [#7], whose husband Captain Charles S. Schaeffer helped newly freed former slaves to found important African American institutions such as Memorial Baptist Church (now Schaeffer Memorial) and the school that would later grow to become Christiansburg Institute.

Among these people, so often remembered in the written histories of Christiansburg, is another woman, who Dr. Thorp’s work now brings to our attention. The handwritten identifications with the photograph notes “Aunt” Jane Carter standing near the far right edge. Jane Carter (1834 – 1911, [#6]) had been a slave owned by Dr. Edie and continued to work for wages in the Edie home after Emancipation. In 1870, she was living with Dr. Edie’s daughter and son-in-law, the Dr. William Figgat family, and working as their cook. She continued working for the Figgats, and later their daughters, until her death. Jane Carter followed a common pattern of women who became adults under slavery, and continued to live in the home of her white employer. This set her apart from younger African American women who grew to adulthood after 1865 and typically established their own homes.

While former owners and former slaves may have continued to lead their lives in close proximity, Jane Carter’s position at the edge of the photograph exemplifies her social status. She was probably working, tending to the children, when the photograph was taken. Her continued presence with members of the Edie-Figgat family could suggest affection and devotion or simply lack of opportunity and economic choice. We cannot know her mind. Yet, taken at a time when black women were often not included in the historic record, this photograph gives us a window into the life of Jane Carter.

 

Sources:

Facing Freedom by Daniel Thorp
Christiansburg, Virginia by Roy Kanode
Familysearch.org