Winnie Steele

1880 US Census, District of Columbia entry for Winnie Steele and her family

According to US Census records, Winnie Steele was born between 1800-1810 in Virginia. It’s unclear who her parents were or even her initial enslaver.

Bazil Williams, a Fairfax County farmer who moved his homestead to Alexandria County, District of Columbia (Arlington today) in the 1820s, became Winnie Steele’s enslaver. She lived and toiled on his property on what is today Columbia Pike by Scott Street (near Bob and Edith’s Diner). 

It’s likely that Steele appeared on Alexandria County censuses from 1830 -1850, but since only race, gender, and age were provided for the enslaved, confirming her listing is difficult. When Williams passed away in 1854, Winnie was mentioned in his probate records including his will, inventory, and account. In his will, William’s manumitted Winnie along with all but three of his chattels and devised each a “legacy” or cash to “assist in conveying to Liberia or any portion of the Western States which [his once enslaved] may feel disposed or permitted to live.”  In Bazil’s inventory, a listing of property once owned by a deceased individual, Winnie Steele appears with her three children. The group is valued at $1,000. Bazil’s probate account also mentions Winnie, who is given $2, her legacy. Other former enslaved were given $20. There were no men with the surname “Steele” in William’s probate records.

Upon freedom, Winnie and her children moved to the District of Columbia. The 1860 census captured her and her children, Sarah, Elijah, and Winnie living with another of Bazil William’s former enslaved Fannie Butler and her family. Pooling their resources must have enabled them to survive the transition to freedom. An 1862 Directory of the District of Columbia lists Steele as the “widow of Elijah,” living on G St.  When Elijah, Sr. passed away is unknown. He must have lived or worked near the William’s farm to have met Winnie and fathered their children.

By 1870, Winnie is living in her own space with her three children. It seems likely that her eldest child, Elijah, has passed away since there is a one-year-old Elijah cited. The census and District directories list Winnie’s occupation as a washerwoman.  Her daughter Winnie took in washing as well. Steele’s household continued to grow in the 1870s and 1880s as grandchildren and relatives entered her life.

Winnie passed away on September 17, 1894, in the District of Columbia. She was buried in Harmony Cemetery on 9th and Rhode Island Avenue, NE. In 1959, the cemetery’s graves were moved to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland.