Even before someone set fire to a child’s gravestone in a historic Black cemetery in Georgetown, that slab of stone pulled at strangers.
People regularly visited that grave marker, bringing with them gifts for a girl who died long ago and curiosity about the life she might have known. The inscription on that marker told them little about her. On it appears just three lines:
Born May 26, 1848
Died May 18, 1856
That information let people know Nannie died days before her 8th birthday and years before President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill abolishing slavery in the District. What it didn’t tell them: whether she was free or enslaved at the time of her death, whether she was Black or White, and whether Nannie was her real name or a nickname.
But now, Nannie may have been identified. On Tuesday, a journal published a piece that offers a deeply researched theory about who Nannie was and the life she led.
If that theory is correct, her name was Francis Tinny. She was Black, and she was free at the time of her death. She had two older sisters and a large extended family in the D.C. region that included relatives who knew what it meant to live as enslaved people.
Her father, William, was born into slavery, and her grandmother Matilda had at least once tried to escape from a prominent man who owned her, a clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives. A runaway notice in 1814 about her reads: “Matilda is five feet five inches high; about twenty years of age; rather spare and likely. Had on when committed, a habit of domestic cotton, shoes and stockings, and brought with her a band box, with a few articles of clothing. Matilda is pregnant, and far advanced. Her owner is requested to release her from prison, or she will be sold agreeably to law.”
That notice was just one piece of information that Mark Auslander, a historical anthropologist who grew up in the District, and Lisa Fager, executive director of the Black Georgetown Foundation, found during the thousands of hours they spent researching Nannie’s identity.
“We got kind of obsessed with it,” Auslander told me recently. The research took them deep into library archives and historical documents. It led them to consider more than 700 girls who could have been Nannie, before eliminating each possibility one by one. “It just seemed to us we all owed it to her to help with the identification process, and that’s what kept us going.”
Auslander compared Nannie’s grave to the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery: “I think one of the reasons people have come to love her is that she represents not only one individual but so many individuals, so many children.”
Allen Tullos, the senior editor of Southern Spaces, the journal that published the piece about Nannie, described the research into her identity as “meticulous” and her story as fitting well with the publication’s aim.
“Part of our effort has always been to try to put back into history a lot of lost people and lost places, so that a real sense of history and geography could emerge,” he said.
I first told you about the mysteries surrounding Nannie’s gravestone a few years ago. I wrote again about her last month after someone set fire to her grave marker, destroying the toys and birthday cards that had been left there over the years for her. Afterward, strangers brought Nannie new toys. Someone even left a tiny ballerina that looked the same as one that was scorched in the fire.
But each of those times, I couldn’t tell you much about Nannie, because not much was publicly known about her. Like you, I was also left wondering who she was, what life she had known and whether her grave marker, made from a stone that shows someone didn’t want her to be easily forgotten, was bought by a wealthy White person or a community of Black people.
Now that she has a possible identity, the life she knew has started to emerge, and it shows history in its complexity.
“Slave child,” is what many people think when they see the dates on Nannie’s gravestone, said Fager of the Black Georgetown Foundation, which has been overseeing the restoration effort at the adjoining Mount Zion and Female Union Band Society cemeteries, where Nannie’ gravestone is located. “We get this simple version of history in schools that tells us that any Black person prior to the Civil War was enslaved, and it’s just not true. And it wasn’t true for Nannie.”
In Georgetown, free and enslaved Black people worked together, worshiped together and sometimes existed in the same families together, she said. There are many people buried in those cemeteries who bought their family members out of slavery, Fager said. The Tinny family was one of them.
“What we’re finding out more and more about the cemetery is that these people all did it for themselves,” she said. They took care of one another, she said. “It’s a constant unlearning and learning in this space.”
Nannie’s headstone sits on the side of the burial grounds that a group of free Black women purchased before her death. That was the first clue that she was probably free when she died. Other evidence Auslander and Fager found: Francis Tinny is listed alongside her sisters in the 1850 Census, but she does not appear with them in the 1860 Census, which would make sense if she died. They also found burial records kept by a local coffin maker that show William Teney (which is how the last name was sometimes spelled) lost a child around the time Nannie died.
Fath Davis Ruffins, a curator of African American history and culture for the Smithsonian, described the findings as “an enormous feat” that involved “brutal primary research.”
“It’s amazing they could find anything about her,” said Ruffins, who grew up in the District. One of the challenges in researching slavery is it is hard to identify individuals who are not famous like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, she said. “To remember the ordinary people is very, very difficult because of all these records that have been obscured and lost.”
We talked about the needs that children in the city face nowadays, and why remembering a local child who has long been gone also matters.
“How we remember the past makes a difference in our present lives. It may not be as urgent as responding to present-day needs of present-day people,” Ruffins said. But memory and remembrance is part of the human experience, she said. “So, remembering someone like Nannie, and remembering her as a symbol of a lot of the rest of that story, I think is an aspect of trying to understand the American experience in all its complexity.”