Henry Speaks (from the Grave)

Behind the tidy, brick St. Ann Catholic Church, north of Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Virginia, on a hillside off the Custis Trail next to Route 66, is a large, flat, grassy lawn and a fenced-off old cemetery with a handful of tombstones moldering with lichen. This cemetery is known as the Southern-Shreve Cemetery, and the land is still owned by the Southern-Shreve family. But what’s unsaid on all the historic signs and information about the white families buried there is that this land was once one of at least three farms in Arlington where a Black man named Henry Speaks labored for no pay for a family that enslaved him. 

Henry Speaks’ unacknowledged work supported white landowning families of Arlington, helping them maintain and grow their status as leading citizens and travel in the same circles as people at the highest echelons of politics and society. Speaks is but one person in one tiny corner of one county, and yet his story is the story of the United States—a nation whose white wealth, standing in the world, and entire future was built on the institution of slavery.

Birth: Henry Speaks was born in Virginia.1 His last name was likely derived from a white enslavers’ family that owned his parents or ancestors, as it is an Anglo-Saxon name2 and may derive from Thomas Speak who came from England to St. Mary’s County, Maryland, by 1661 as the original immigrant of the Speak(s) family.3

First known enslaver: Eliza Sommers of Alexandria County, VA (now Arlington) recorded in her will that she owned Henry Speaks, although it’s possible that her father, Simon Sommers, owned him first. A Revolutionary War veteran, he received a 4,000-acre bounty-land grant in 1784 for his service, including 200 acres in now-Arlington that he called Sommerville4 where the 1881 historic home of Broadview stands in the Waycroft-Woodlawn neighborhood,5 and Speaks likely lived and worked in the vicinity. 

Executed in 18486, the will directed a “private sale” of Eliza Sommers’ “servants” “to serve until they are thirty five years of age – then they are to be free.” She specified that they were only to be sold “to persons residing in Virginia, Maryland, or the District of Columbia,” and they were not to be removed from those places. In addition, she stated, “I positively forbid them being sold to the traders.” She itemized among her “personal property” Henry, age 21, who was “to serve fourteen years,” or until September 1862. 

Second known enslaver: A man named William D. Nutt, a clerk at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, purchased Henry Speaks sometime between 1848 and 1856 from Simon Lafayette Sommers, Eliza Sommers’ nephew who handled her estate.7 Presumably, Speaks worked as a farm hand on Nutt’s property, which was located near today’s East Falls Church Metro station in Arlington8; Nutt had also hired out a man named Jacob in 1833 and 1834.9 Nutt was a secessionist who lost his house to Union troops in September 1861 when they burned it down, including a piano and heavy furniture, and ravaged the garden, outbuildings, and stock animals. Then they turned the land into a contraband camp—a refugee camp for former slaves—called Camp Rucker.10 Nutt eventually moved to Richmond to work as a clerk for the Confederate Treasury Department11. But he did not disobey the requests in Eliza Sommers’ will regarding the handling of Henry Speaks.

Third known enslaver: On July 1, 1856, Richard Southern leased William Henry Speaks, listed as 28 years old but possibly 29, from Nutt and agreed to abide by Eliza Sommers’ wishes to free him at age 35, as Nutt outlined in the “bill of sale.” Southern put down $14.87 and agreed to pay Nutt $75 per year for the period of September 15, 1857 to September 15, 1862, for a total of $465.8712 (equal to $16,396.98 in 2023), after which point the contract would end and Speaks would be free.

Speaks’s third known enslaver was born in 1791 in England and first came to Baltimore in 1820. Wanting to be closer to the Capital City, in 1822 he leased a mansion, land, servants, and farm hands13 from John Mason on Mason’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). Southern was a landscape architect and horticulturalist and had his enslaved workers cultivate the soil for farming, including propagating tomatoes, a pioneering food for the time. As an example of Southern’s contemporaries, allowing him a certain station in society due in part to his use of free labor, his daughter Mary attended Sunday school at Arlington mansion14, the home of Martha Washington’s grandson and George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. 

After his first wife died on Mason’s Island, Southern married Frances Redin from Georgetown in 1826. Later that year, they and his two daughters from his first marriage moved to the 100-acre15 Arlington farm, now the site of St. Ann, where Southern freed at least one slave in October 1831—Lidia (Lydia), 21, described as a “mulatto”16—and where his wife undertook the care of her father, John Redin, a Revolutionary War veteran, who was buried in the “family graveyard” in the garden of their home in 1832.17 In 1839, Southern’s wife’s brother purchased the farm, then known as the Mulhall tract, and deeded it to Southern18, who called it Poplar Grove,19 and the Southern family intermarried with the nearby prominent families of Shreves, Balls, Birches, and Donaldsons. 

Freedom: In 1862, Henry Speaks was recorded as living in Washington, DC (at 189 L Street North), still working as a laborer20 for his enslaver Richard Southern. Southern moved temporarily to DC in 1862, likely because Union troops overtook his property, as happened to many other Arlington landowners and slaveholders. (Evidence shows that, later, in 1871, a Richard Southern of Poplar Grove applied to the Southern Claims Commission, which was created for “Southern Unionist citizens,” for compensation of supplies “taken or furnished for the State for the use of Union Army”21 during the Civil War.) 

While Southern was living in DC, Lincoln signed an act that freed all of DC’s enslaved people (totaling 3,100) as of April 16, 1862, with payment to the enslavers as long as they pledged loyalty to the Union. Within about a month, Southern applied to the federal government of Washington DC to be compensated for the loss of his slave. Hoping to reap as much money for his lost property as possible, Southern described Speaks, age 33 (though he would be 35 according to Eliza Sommers’ math), as “an able-bodied farm hand, jet black, medium size, and of good regular features.”22 He also wrote that Speaks was a “valuable farmer and gardener, and had no disease nor infirmity of any sort—his services were worth all I claimed and cannot be readily replaced.”23

But Southern seemed to fib a bit about the loss. According to Eliza Sommers’ will and the lease agreement drawn up by William D. Nutt, Henry Speaks was to have been freed by September 15, 1862, five months after the emancipation act was approved; but in his petition, Southern claimed that he had paid for another year and three months of Speaks’ service. He claimed a value of $180; in February 1864, Southern received $17.52 (equal to $331.20 in 2023). 

In 1863, Speaks was 36, living at 312 20th Street West24 in DC, working as a laborer, and possibly entering military duty—that is, fighting for the Union during the Civil War, as his name appears on a list of people subject to military duty in DC. If he joined up, he may have trained with the 1st District of Columbia Colored Volunteers, which formed in May 1863, the first black regiment formally mustered into service (later designated as the 1st United States Colored Troops). Ironically, they trained on Mason’s Island, once home to Speaks’ former enslaver.

By 1875, Speaks would have been 48, and he was working as a “driver,” living at 21st and M Street.25 For his thirty-five years of bondage and forced labor, no enslaver or government ever paid Henry Speaks a dime in compensation.

—Sue Eisenfeld


1. Consolidated List, 1863

2. Last name: Speaks, n.d.

3. DNAeXplained: Genetic Genealogy, 2012

4. Arlington County Register of Historic Places, 2014

5. Arlington County Register of Historic Places, 2014

6. Eliz Sommers’ Will, 1848

7. Bill of Sale, William D. Nutt for Henry Speaks, 1856

8. Baumgarten, R., 2014

9. Slavery Inventory Database, n.d.

10. Baumgarten, R., 2014

11. Baumgarten, R., 2014

12. Bill of Sale, William D. Nutt for Henry Speaks, 1856

13. Templeman, E.L., 1959

14. Templeman, E.L., 1959

15. Richard Southern, n.d.

16. The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery, 2007

17. Templeman, E.L., 1959

18. Richard Southern, n.d.

19. Bluemont Neighborhood Conservation Plan, 2013

20. Washington, DC directory, 1862

21. Virginia Claims, 1871

22. Petition for Compensation, 1862

23. Petition for Compensation, 1862

24. Consolidated List, 1863

25. Washington, DC directory, 1875


Arlington County Register of Historic Places. (2014, September). “Broadview Historic District, Historic District Designation Form.” https://www.arlingtonva.us/files/sharedassets/public/Projects/Documents/HP_Broadview_Historic-Designation-Form.pdf

Baumgarten, R. (2014, January 15). “The Civil War in Northern Virginia and Beyond, Mosby’s Attempt to Raid the Contraband Camp Near Falls Church,” All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac. http://dclawyeronthecivilwar.blogspot.com/2014/01/mosbys-attempt-to-raid-contraband-camp.html

Bill of Sale, William D. Nutt for Henry Speaks. (1856). U.S. Slave Owner Petitions, 1862-1863, Washington, DC, Richard Southern Claim, p. 5, Ancestry.com.

Bluemont Neighborhood Conservation Plan. (2013, December 17). http://arlington.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=&clip_id=2694&meta_id=117222

Consolidated List of all persons of Class II, subject to do military duty in the First SubDistrict of the District of Columbia. (1863, June-July). U.S. Civil War Draft Registration Records, 1863-1865. Ancestry.com.

DNAeXplained: Genetic Genealogy. (2012, October 18). “The Speak Family – 3 Continents and a Dash of Luck.” https://dna-explained.com/2012/10/18/the-speak-family-3-continents-and-a-dash-of-luck/

Eliza Sommers’ will, 1848, Will Book 5, p. 107, 9/20/1848, Alexandria County, District of Columbia. Virginia probate records, Ancestry.com.

Last name: Speaks. (n.d.) The Internet Surname Database. https://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Speaks

Petition for Compensation. (1862). U.S. Slave Owner Petitions, 1862-1863, Washington, DC, Richard Southern Claim, pp. 1-3. Ancestry.com.

Richard Southern. (n.d.). wikitree. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Southern-618

Slavery Inventory Database. (n.d.). https://slaveryinventorydatabase.net/database/getperson.php?personID=I481&tree=sid1&sitever=mobile

Templeman, E.L. (1959). Arlington Heritage (derived from The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography).

The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery. (2007, April 29). Slave Manumissions in Alexandria Land Records, 1790-1863. http://www.freedmenscemetery.org/resources/documents/manumissions.shtml

“Virginia Claims,” (1871, April 21). Alexandria Gazette. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29312796/alexandria-gazette/

Washington, DC directory. (1862). U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995. Ancestry.com.

Washington, DC directory. (1875). U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995. Ancestry.com