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Life Inside The Executive Mansion
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Life of Enslaved and Free Black Workers Inside the Confederate Executive Mansion
The house at 1201 E. Clay Street, in Richmond, Virginia, was the site of the Executive Mansion of the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865. This home was not only the executive residence of President Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederacy, and his wife, Varina Davis, and their children, but also the working place and possible residence for an estimated twelve Black women and men who were either enslaved or employed as servants in the home.
Many of these individuals worked as personal attendants to the Davises, serving the first family of the Confederacy for tasks large and small in their official and daily lives. They were butlers, nursemaids, bodymen, coachmen, and personal assistants, put to task to tend to the Davis children in one moment and then to attend to matters of state in the next.
While much of it is gone today, the site of the executive mansion was home to a substantial footprint with stables, kitchen facilities, and possibly servants’ quarters adjoining the mansion on the property. This complex overlooked Shockoe Valley, where the second largest slave market in the United States existed among the flowing waters of Shockoe creek. It was also mere blocks away from the Virginia State Capitol which would function as the legislature of the Confederacy for most of the American Civil War.
Many of these individuals enslaved by the Davis family had families of their own living in other parts of the city, either enslaved by others or most likely living in the Black community to the northwest of the mansion in what we now know as Richmond’s Jackson Ward. Their children were known to have labored at household chores and acted as playmates to the Davis children while at the executive mansion, further exasperating the strange mix of subjugation and personal intimacy that defined life in the house. These individuals were constant companions to the Davis family, and also the targets of their abuse, existing in a state of limbo where their humanity was always in conflict with their social and legal status as another person’s property.
But the Davises were not just these individuals' enslavers, they were also the first family leading a cause fighting to perpetuate the institution of slavery through brutal warfare. This complicated reality and the pressures and opportunities that came with the war would have been felt deeply by those living within the walls of the executive mansion. The shifting fortunes of the Confederacy meant possible victory or loss for the Davis family but also perpetual enslavement or liberation for those they held in bondage.
This divided domestic life existed within the larger fabric of Richmond as a cornerstone of Southern industry, culture, and commerce– a major rail and shipping depot, the headquarters of the Confederate Government and military, the state capital, and home to one of the largest free Black populations in Virginia. The stories of those who served in the Davis household in Richmond during the Civil War can help us understand this social and wartime landscape of the city where Richmond’s Black residents lived and worked and hoped for freedom while enduring the demands and control of a society which was built on their labor.
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