Discover Virginia and American history from three centuries at the Lee-Fendall House Museum. Located in historic Alexandria, this museum interprets the experiences of the people who lived and worked in the house from 1785 to 1969. Explore stories of everyone who has left their mark -- merchants and politicians, enslaved and free African Americans, housewives and actresses, liquor dealers and labor leaders.
It is rare that photographs like the one of an unknown woman above exist. When they do, the African American child nurses were not the subjects of these images, which were taken to feature the white children in their care. Due to their lack of inclusion in photographs and records, little information is known about these women. Malvina Harris was a child nurse and freedwoman who worked for Louis and Harriot Casenove while they lived in the Lee-Fendall House. She is listed in the 1850 census as a “mulatto” (mixed-race) woman, 30 years old, who could not read or write.
Unfortunately, we do not know much about Malvina or how she became free. Was she born to free parents? Did she purchase her freedom? Was her father a white enslaver who manumitted her? There are also many possible explanations as to why she was working alongside enslaved people in the Casenove house. As an illiterate woman, there were limited options for employment. It is possible Malvina was married to someone who was enslaved nearby and wanted to remain close. Working for the Casenoves may also have provided Malvina with a degree of protection. Although Alexandria had a sizeable free black population, it was also a central slave market in 1850. Slave traders made money by selling enslaved men and women to plantations further south, sometimes even kidnapping free African Americans to sell.