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Freedom House Museum

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 9, Number 4

Every day, hundreds of motorists drive by the attractive but ordinary-looking three story building at 1315 Duke Street, Alexandria, Virginia, just a few miles from the United States Capitol, oblivious to the fact that for approximately 30 years preceding the Civil War the building was the site of one of the most prosperous, yet horrific, business enterprises in the entire country—the domestic slave trade. However, with the recent opening of the Freedom House Museum at the site, the public now has the opportunity to learn about what took place there long ago.

In the 1820’s, there was a tremendous increase in the need for slaves in the fast-growing areas in the southwestern part of the United States to plant, pick, and process cotton (the new “white gold”). This demand could not be met through an increase in the number of slaves due to births exceeding deaths, or through the importation of slaves from Africa, since the transatlantic slave trade had been made illegal in 1808, and violation of the law became punishable by death in 1820. However, during this period there was a notable decrease in the demand for slave labor in the Mid-Atlantic region because of the decline in the profitability of tobacco farming. Eventually, the prices paid for slaves in the southwest reached a level which was significantly higher than the prices slaves were sold for in the Mid-Atlantic region. These circumstances inevitably led to the flourishing of the domestic slave trade, which was designed to facilitate the movement of slaves from one region of the country to another. It is estimated that during the eighty years prior to the Civil War, more than one million enslaved people were sold by their owners to slave traders who resold the slaves to third parties.

From 1828 until the outbreak of the Civil War, the entire city block which today is within walking distance of Old Town Alexandria, was the business office and “slave pen” for a succession of domestic slave trade operators. The first slave trade operating at 1315 Duke Street was established by Isaac Franklin and John Armfield. For the period 1828-1836, theirs was the largest and most prosperous slave trade enterprise in the entire country. During this eight-year period, more than 10,000 enslaved men, women, and children passed through the Alexandria slave pen as an interim stop on their way to an unknown fate in the Deep South. As a result of their fortuitous timing and business skill, Franklin and Armfield made profits of as much as $1 million and $500,000 (in pre-Civil War dollars), respectively, in their slave trading business.

Armfield, who lived at the site, acquired slaves from slave owners throughout the Virginia/Maryland area by placing advertisements in newspapers soliciting slave owners to bring slaves for sale to their Alexandria site for purchase, and by using an extensive team of purchasing agents throughout Virginia and Maryland. Once Armfield had purchased slaves, they were kept in the Alexandria slave pen until arrangements could be made to send them to Franklin in New Orleans, or Natchez, Mississippi, who sold them to local buyers. The slaves were sent to Franklin either by sailing on one of the ships which the partnership owned and used for this purpose, or by walking 1,000 miles overland in slave groups (or “coffles”). The domestic slave trade not only uprooted slave families and moved them hundreds of miles to a distant part of the country, it routinely resulted in the separation of families, tearing husbands from wives, and separating parents from their children. An additional horror of the slave trade was the sale of some female slaves (“Fancy Girls”) for purposes of sexual exploitation.

Franklin and Armfield sold their business in 1836 and the location passed through the hands of other slave traders. On May 24, 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, Union troops crossed the Potomac River, took control of Alexandria and freed the remaining slaves. The site was then used to house disorderly Union soldiers, ex-slaves escaping to the north, and Confederate prisoners. In the century after the Civil War, the site was used at various times as a hospital, boarding house, apartment building, and private residence. 

In 1978, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in the mid-1980’s the structure was analyzed by professional archeologists and substantially renovated. In 1985, the site was officially dedicated to Lewis Henry Bailey, who had passed through the site as a slave. After he became free, Bailey walked back to Alexandria where he located his mother, became a minister, and established several churches and schools in the Alexandria area, some of which survive to this day.

The Northern Virginia Urban League (NOVUL) purchased the building in 1996 and now uses the structure for its on-going operations, providing scholarships, leadership training, financial management skills, and other services to the community. NOVUL opened the Freedom House Museum on February 12, 2008 (President Lincoln’s birthday), in commemoration of the thousands of enslaved people who passed through here on their way to unknown and tragic futures. The Museum tells the story of the site, and explains the economic, historic, and moral aspects of the slave trade business.

The Museum is a visual delight, and uses color, spacing, lines of site, and a variety of modalities and other sophisticated and creative design techniques to give character and charm to each presentation. The presentations are candid, but not shocking, and are deliberately designed to education and appeal to visitors ages 8 and above.

The motto of the Freedom House Museum is “Legacy of Triumph, and Foundation for the Future.” Although the Museum commemorates the sorrow and suffering of the enslaved, visitors leave the building with smiles in their hearts, and spirits uplifted. Thoughtful visitors will note the rich irony that at the place where for 30 years prior to the Civil War there was so much sorrow and suffering, the past 30 years has brought recognition, renovation, and rebirth. The building which was at one time used by slave traders to control, humiliate, and torment its victims, is now used by NOVUL to liberate, uplift, and empower members of the community.

Our thanks to Mr. Lawrence Cohn for this article. Mr. Cohn is a partner in the Washington law firm of Cohn & Marks. He traces his interest in history and the Civil War to childhood where very early, he was stunned to learn that he lived in an area where slavery was once an acceptable practice. He was surprised once more when he moved to Alexandria, Virginia where relics and reminders of this terrible era of our history still exist. Thus, his commitment to become involved with the Freedom House Museum and to teach the public about the tragic events that occurred--up the road from George Washington's Mt. Vernon home and in the shadow of the United States Capitol--1315 Duke Street.