Josephine Lewis Parke Slade


Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Josephine Lewis Parke Slade, 1818-1872


By Blake Wintory, Ph.D., Independent Scholar

Josephine Lewis Parke Slade, a free-born African American woman, was a founding board manager of the Universal Franchise Association in 1867. During the Civil War, she was active in freedmen's relief organizations and worked in the White House alongside Elizabeth Keckley.

Josephine was born free ca. 1818 in Alexandria, then part of the District of Columbia. Josephine's mother, Rachael Branham, and two sisters, Marsolina and Almira, had been free since April 21, 1813. That year, Mordecai Miller, a Quaker, purchased their freedom for $200 from George Washington Parke Custis of Arlington House. Custis, in 1802, inherited Caroline Branham, a housemaid and seamstress, and her children--at least eight in number--from the Mount Vernon estate of his grandmother, Martha Washington (President George Washington's widow). Later, Custis would inherit Caroline's husband, Peter Hariman, an enslaved groomer at Mount Vernon whom the Washingtons rented from a relative.

Josephine revealed connections to the Custis and Washington families to abolitionist Julia Wilbur in June 1868 tell the diarist her father was "Shalter Stewart," a "half brother of Mary Custis," daughter of George Washington Parke Custis; and Eleanor Custis Lewis, granddaughter of Martha Washington, her godmother.

Rachael Branham lived in Alexandria in 1820 and 1830 with the census recording her as head of household and a "Free Colored Person." In 1820, when Josephine would have been about two, three girls and one boy under the age of fourteen are in the household. A decade later, when Josephine was about 12, only one dependent lived in the household, a daughter between 10 and 24.

On June 26, 1834, Josephine Parke married William Slade in Washington, D.C. William was born free around 1814, just after his mother and aunt, Jane (Foote) Nolan and Catherine "Kitty" Foote, were freed in 1813. Wilbur's diary recorded Slade family tradition: William's mother was enslaved by the Virginia Foote family and she was the half-sister of Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote. William's paternity is less clear; Wilbur recorded his father as "Mr. Slade of Alex[andria] formally[?] Mem. of Cong." Abolitionist William Slade, a former Vermont Governor (1844-1846) and U.S. Congressman (1831-1843), is an obvious, but unlikely candidate.

Mentored by his step-father, Philip Nolan, William worked as a porter and caterer at Brown's Indian Queen Hotel, popular with Washington's elite. Influential in the District's growing free black community, the Slades owned property and lived on Massachusetts Ave. near the community's most important institutions. By 1855, William was the board president of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church and, in 1856, purchased land for the Columbian Harmony Cemetery. Although records of their involvement in the Underground Railroad are scant, upon Williams's death, The San Francisco Elevator, placed him alongside others "who fearlessly battled the enemies of our race" "in the perilous days of slavery."

Around 1857, the family briefly moved to Cleveland, Ohio possibly to take advantage of the city's integrated public school system. With seven children by 1860, the Slades valued education. Josephine's mother and sisters--as current research indicates--were likely instructed to read the Bible while enslaved at Arlington House. According to the 1850 and 1860 censuses, the Slade children attended school. In 1850, they likely attended the Union Seminary headed by Rev. John F. Cook, who also led the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church from 1841 until his death in 1855. Two of the Slade daughters would later become teachers; one receiving her training at the State Normal School in Framingham, Massachusetts, while a son attended Oberlin College.

The Slades returned to Washington, D.C. in 1861 when William, supported by a recommendation by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, took positions in the Treasury Department. By 1862, President Abraham Lincoln brought William to the White House, appointing him lead servant. The Slade's youngest daughter, Katherine "Nibbie," recalled in an account published in 1942, playdates with the President's son Tad at his home as well as at the Slade home on Massachusetts Ave. By her account, the President considered William a confidant and the two men discussed slavery and emancipation as he assisted the President with his writings and speeches. Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, and Mrs. Slade were acquainted as early as the spring of 1861 when the pair assisted essayist, orator, abolitionist, and school teacher, Maria W. Stewart, in her move to D.C. Wilbur's diary recorded Josephine as "employed in the White House," implying she worked as a seamstress for Mrs. Lincoln alongside Elizabeth Keckley. Another author, Lucy Colman, wrote the Slade's teenage daughter, Miss Josephine Slade, worked as a helper to Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker.

As freed former slaves sought refuge in the capital, the city's free black elites, like the Slades and Keckley, mobilized to meet the humanitarian crisis. William Slade, as president of the Social, Civil, and Statistical Association, successfully opposed plans to relocate freedmen to Liberia and other locales outside the country. Instead, the Slades focused their efforts on education--organizing a freedmen's school held in the basement of the First Colored Baptist Church--and relief--listing their home as a depot for contributions. In the fall of 1862, Elizabeth Keckley and the Slades organized the Contraband Relief Association. of Mrs. Slade's work with the organization, The Christian Recorder, February 21, 1863, wrote, that she was "one of our most distinguished ladies...she is constantly among them [the sick], and her name will stand gilded in letters of immortality of her invalid sympathy and great-hearted benevolence." Slade traveled as far away as Cleveland, Ohio in 1865, and the National Freedmen's Relief Association praised her efforts: "We gratefully record...the devoted services of Mrs. J. L. Slade, who with untiring zeal and wise humanity, has done her utmost, by sympathy, counsel, the distribution of supplies, and personal influence, to relieve the sufferings and quicken the energies of the colored poor."

On April 15, 1865, the morning after President Lincoln's assassination, William Slade washed and dressed the body. At Mrs. Lincoln's direction, Keckley gave Josephine the widow's dress stained with the President's blood. Wilbur wrote, "Mrs. Slade & Mrs. Keckley have been with Mrs. Lincoln nearly all the time since the murder, not as servants but as friends." Soon thereafter, President Andrew Johnson appointed William White House steward.

In January 1867, Josephine attended The National Equal Rights League Convention of Colored Men in support of black male suffrage. The first black men voted in D.C. that spring. In the summer of 1867, Josephine was appointed a board manager of the Universal Franchise Association. The organization, founded by Josephine Griffing, an Ohio-born abolitionist, advocated for the universal--black and white--suffrage for women in addition to other rights, including property, custody of children, and equal wages for federal clerks. Black and white women made attempts to register to vote in 1869 and 1871, but Josephine Slade is not known to be among them. The movement splintered as divisions over race emerged.

William died in March 1868 leaving Josephine an estate estimated to be valued at $100,000. President Andrew Johnson, his daughters, and other dignitaries attended the funeral. The 1870 Census lists Josephine Slade, 51, as the head of her household with $14,000 in real estate and $1,000 in personal property. Her son, William Costin Slade, 21, had an appointment in the Navy Yard; daughter, Marie Louise Slade, 24, listed at home was appointed copyist in the Pension of fice in 1869 and would later be active in the Montana Suffrage Club. Jesse Brown Slade, 15, attended normal school at Howard University; and Andrew F. Slade, 13, was appointed the first African-American page in the Senate at the end of 1869 and would later attend Oberlin College. Other members of the household included Katherine H. Slade, 11, attended school in Massachusetts later in the decade; Walthall Wynn, 26, a clerk and law student at Howard University; and James Murphy, 28, Tennessee-born member of the Capitol Police.

Josephine's life would soon change again after the marriage of her daughter, Marie, in December 1870 to James W. Mason, a prominent Republican politician in Arkansas. Perhaps because of her failing health, Josephine, along with much of the Slade household, moved to Lake Village in Chicot County, Arkansas. She died there in June 1872. Her body was transported back to Washington, D.C. where she was buried next to her husband in Columbian Harmony Cemetery. In 1969, faced with insolvency, the cemetery was sold to a developer. Over 37,000 remains were reinterred at Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland; however, headstones were not transported nor were the locations of individual burials noted.


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