A Life Rediscovered: The Story of Emily Winfree

Time Period
1825 to 1860
1861 to 1876
1925 to Today
Black History
Women's History

Photograph of Emily Winfree. (VMHC MHS539.R51.M21.1907)

The names of some Virginians roll off the tongue of Americans like water. More than 900 books have been written about our first president, who has a profound legacy in our state and our nation. But the stories of lesser-known Virginians are important as well. There are many who never knew fame or acquired fortunes yet persevered against overwhelming odds. They also left legacies in the form of their descendants who have benefited from and built upon their tenacity. Emily Winfree is one such individual. Winfree, an African American woman who lived through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, never gave up, always kept her family together, and ultimately prevailed. 

The name of Emily Winfree became known to Richmonders in 2002, when a small cottage in Manchester was about to be torn down to enlarge a parking lot. This structure was the sole survivor of hundreds of similar homes built during Reconstruction. The Association for the Conservation of Richmond Neighborhoods (which no longer exists) realized the cottage’s historical importance and managed to rescue it at the last minute. Having found no permanent home, today “Winfree’s Cottage” sits on a trailer below Interstate-95 adjacent to the site of Lumpkin’s Jail in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood. The cottage was said to be the home of Emily Winfree, given to her after the Civil War by farmer and physician David Winfree who was Emily’s former owner and father of several of her children. 


The Winfree Cottage as it sits today at the Lumpkin’s Jail site in Richmond, Virginia’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood.

Several articles appeared in Richmond newspapers and magazines, but many of the facts were incorrect or unsubstantiated. Some incorrectly reported that David Winfree was the father of all of Emily’s children while others described the house as 700 square feet, when in fact it is less than 500. Emily was reported to have lived in half of the house and rented out the other half, but actually there were two structures on the original property. Emily’s story was never methodically researched and documented. Now we can tell the story of Emily Winfree with greater certainty. 

Emily’s story begins about 1834 when she was born into slavery. The earliest mention of her is in an 1857 estate inventory made after the death of her owner, Jordan Branch. Branch was a prominent attorney and sheriff in Petersburg, as well as brother-in-law and first cousin of David Winfree. Emily is listed as a 20-year-old woman along with her one-year-old daughter Mariah. On December 28, 1858, Emily and Mariah were sold together at auction for $1,025 to A. B. Hutchinson. Although David did not acquire Emily and Mariah at that sale, by July 1860 he owned them as well as Emily’s second daughter, Elizabeth. It is uncertain who fathered Mariah and Elizabeth, but David Winfree would have had the opportunity to interact with Emily while she was owned by Branch. 


Ledger documenting the sale of Emily and her daughter. (VMHC Mss3.B7327a.FA1212)

In 1860, Emily and the two girls lived at David Winfree’s farm in Chesterfield County. They remained there throughout the Civil War, and by March 1865, Emily had two more children, Walter David and James Wiley (who shared David’s father’s name). In June 1864, David joined Company G, 1st Regiment (Fairnholt’s) Virginia Reserves as the Confederacy made a last-ditch effort to defend Richmond. By December, he was admitted to an army hospital. Diagnosed with “syphilitic rheumatism of long standing,” he was furloughed and subsequently discharged. As a physician, David likely knew he was terminally ill and began getting his affairs in order. In February 1865, he put his farm up for auction, but it did not sell. In 1866, David took measures to provide for Emily and her five children — Henry had been born that year. He purchased a lot and buildings in Manchester and gave her a 109.5-acre parcel out of his farm. He granted her exclusive rights to these properties and named a trustee to look after Emily’s interests. On March 20, 1867, David Winfree died.  


This November 24, 1890, receipt from Manchester Lodge #14 records the fee for the labor of Emily Winfree, listed as Aunt Emily. (VMHC Mss3.F8774a)

We will never know the true relationship between David and Emily. Although they were father and mother, they were not husband and wife, but rather slaveowner and enslaved. What emotions did she have upon his death? Did she grieve? For the rest of her life, she and others called her Mrs. Winfree, although there is no record of their marriage, which would have been highly unlikely. Regardless of her legal status, David had been her only means of support, and his death left her in dire straits. She had five small children, was functionally illiterate, and had only domestic work available to her. 

After David’s death, Emily struggled for the rest of her life to provide for her family and keep them together. Like tens of thousands of formerly enslaved African Americans, she received rations from the federal relief agency known as the Freedman’s Bureau in 1867 and 1868. She received some rental income from the property in Manchester, where research shows that “Winfree’s Cottage” was one of two structures — one serving as Emily’s residence and the other being rented to tenants. In 1867, she cut and sold timber from her farm in Chesterfield County and built a house on the property. She moved there for a time, but by 1870, she returned to Manchester, possibly for better employment opportunities. Census records show that she worked as a domestic servant and records from the Freemason’s Manchester Lodge #14 state that she was also their cook for thirty-three years. Emily’s oldest child Mariah stayed with the younger children while her mother worked. Emily later had two more children, Clifford and Lucy, whose father(s) remain unknown. As the children grew, they also worked, mostly at unskilled jobs, but Clifford and Lucy eventually became teachers. The family stayed close to one another in Manchester. Eventually, Emily sold both of her properties and moved with several of her children to a larger house on Stockton Street in Manchester, where she lived until her death in 1919. She is buried in Richmond’s Maury Cemetery with five of her children.  


Descendants of Emily Winfree pose in front of her cottage during their trip through Richmond.  

Genealogical research resulted in the discovery of many living descendants of Emily Winfree now residing in New Jersey, Maryland, Lynchburg, and Midlothian. They are descendants of Emily’s oldest child, Mariah, and her youngest, Lucy. Among them are a concert pianist, a star athlete, several engineers and PhDs, a Library of Congress librarian, a disc jockey, and, like two of Emily’s children, many teachers. Family members were invited to the VMHC to remember their ancestor, and in July 2018, twenty-three of them visited and enjoyed a welcome by President & CEO Jamie Bosket, a presentation of the newly discovered information about Emily Winfree, and a bus tour of the locations in Richmond where her story unfolded.   

Emily Winfree’s story is important. She was the embodiment of the strength of character it took to face the struggles of her time and place. Her family and the VMHC have a keen interest in seeing that “Winfree’s Cottage” finds a permanent home and is restored, so that it may serve as a testament to Emily and to the millions of African American women who experienced similar struggles, whose stories will never be told, whose names have been lost, and who should not be forgotten.   

This article was written by VMHC volunteers, Dr. Jan Meck & Virginia Refo, for Virginia History & Culture Magazine, Winter/Spring 2019.