Once a Horrific Slave Pen, Now a Museum on Enslavement and Freedom
Many people walk by the unassuming 19th-century white-brick row house in the historic area of Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington, not realizing it was part of a horrible chapter in U.S. history.
A sign out front indicates it used to be the Franklin and Armfield Slave Office, one of the major centers of the U.S. domestic slave trade in the 19th century.
Today, it has become the Freedom House Museum, which looks at a brutal past but also on the accomplishments of African Americans in Virginia.
Beginning in 1828, two slave traders, Isaac Franklin and John Armfield, used the building and three adjoining lots as a holding pen or jail for thousands of enslaved Blacks.
The enslaved were brought to the pen from local plantations where they had picked tobacco until the soil became exhausted. Then they were either bought directly or remained at the jail until they were shipped south to Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, where they were sold at even higher prices to pick cotton and harvest sugarcane.
The slave jail grew to become one of the largest slave-trading companies in the United States until 1836.
“One of the scary things is that they created this almost perfect model for trafficking human beings,” said Audrey Davis, the Freedom House Museum director who also heads Alexandria’s Black History Museum. “They would buy the enslaved people at a good price and bring them to Alexandria and then sell them again for more profit.”
The Freedom House Museum contains exhibits that show the atrociousness of slavery, but it also looks at the accomplishments of Black Americans in Alexandria. The museum recently reopened after being closed for renovations.
“The exhibitions talk about Alexandria’s role in the domestic slave trade, but also stress that African Americans are not defined by slavery,” Davis told VOA. “We have many years of perseverance from surviving enslavement and want to make sure that people are getting the full view of the African American experience in Alexandria.”
At the museum entrance, a sign explains, “This exhibit honors the memory of the enslaved people who created our nation.” And on an entryway wall, some of the names and ages are listed of the more than 8,500 enslaved people who went through the doors of the jail.
Treyvon Harris, 14, from Fort Washington, Maryland, scanned the names of the young and old, but stopped when he saw a 1-year-old child.
“That means a baby could be a slave for his whole life and even be taken away from his family,” he said in disbelief.
The slave pen took up an entire block and contained a kitchen, infirmary, dining area and outdoor courtyard for exercise. Since the traders knew healthier and better-looking enslaved people would bring higher prices, they were given a little more food. A tailor shop at the complex also provided new clothes for them to wear at the auction market.
“The U.S. had a large and growing population of enslaved labor,” explained Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor of Africa diaspora studies at Norfolk State University in Virginia. “The buying and selling was a big business that also fueled other industries, like steamships and schooners that transported enslaved people.”
Davis said the reaction to the slave pen in Alexandria was mixed at the time, with some people believing slavery was wrong and others accepting it as an important part of the economy.
“People in Alexandria certainly knew what was going on, even though there were high walls around it,” Davis said. “They would have seen the trafficking of human beings by the nearby Potomac River where the people were boarded on boats.”
Several domestic slave trading firms operated the pen until it was liberated in 1861 by anti-slavery Union troops during the U.S. Civil War. The pen was turned into a jail for Confederate soldiers and unruly Union troops.
Today, all that remains of the slave jail is the house. However, Davis said she doesn’t want Freedom House to be defined just by the period of enslavement.
“While we must understand what happened during slavery, it is not the only defining moment of the African American people,” Davis said. “African Americans have had amazing achievements that have helped our culture and society.”
An exhibit called “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality” shares inspiring stories of extraordinary individuals who struggled for equality.
In Alexandria, they included Albert Johnson, the first Black physician allowed to practice in the city, and Shirley Marshall-Lee, the first African American certified scuba diver.
Visitor Ingrid Schoenburg from Fairfax, Virginia, said, “What is so compelling is that the museum shows the power of the human spirit when faced with adversity.”
Lakisha Jones from Houston, Texas, agreed.
“This place is a reminder of what our people went through,” said Jones, who is African American, “and how they persevered and continue to do so today.”