Last Updated on January 5, 2023
On the site of what is now Freedom House Museum Alexandria, VA humans were penned like livestock.
“It was like a farmer’s barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there.”
Children–10, 12, 15-years old; 2-years-old, 3-months-old–torn from their mothers, never to be reunited.
People chained at the neck.
Freezing. Sweltering. Starving. Naked.
“Tell me citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking.”
This site is not a death camp in Germany, it’s 1315 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA, in the shadow of the nation’s capital. The Capitol Dome is visible with the naked eye from the waterfront less than a mile away.
The Freedom House Museum Alexandria is what remains of a large complex dedicated to trafficking thousands of Black men, women and children between 1828 and 1861. The museum honors the lives and experiences of the enslaved and free Black people who lived in–and were trafficked through–Alexandria, once America’s busiest domestic slave market. The museum seeks to reframe white supremacist history and provide visitors opportunities to learn, reflect and advocate for change.
Visitors to the Freedom House Museum Alexandria are confronted and left astonished by what they didn’t know regarding slavery in the United States of America, land of the free, home of the brave. What details have been suppressed by their popular textbooks, teachers, documentaries and mythologies.
How Alexandria was once part of the District of Columbia before citizens chose to leave D.C. for Virginia because it still permitted slavery.
How the country outlawed the international import of enslaved people in 1808, not for humanitarian reasons, but for economic ones. Cutting off the outside supply allowed the domestic slave trade to flourish. Fortunes were made off the sale and transport of human flesh. African Americans raised like crops to be sold at markets and displayed in “showrooms.”
An estimated 388,000 Africans came to what would become the United States as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. An estimated 650,000 African descendants would be bought and sold domestically to feed the forced labor machine in the Deep South.
That’s where the enslaved held by Franklin & Armfield, the company which operated the site at 1315 Duke Street, were headed. Louisiana to be specific.
“Driving a company of a hundred men, women and children from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans… they are food for the cotton field and the deadly sugar mill… see this drove sold and separated forever,” so said Frederick Douglass in 1852 during his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” speech, which also included the “tell me citizens” line above, as quoted in wall text at Freedom House. “And never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude.”
These were people, although not in the eyes of the buyers and sellers.
Some were sent by ship, others overland in coffles, a term redacted from American history. Coffles were iron chains with attached collars by which long rows of enslaved were connected and marched.
They walked from Alexandria to Natchez, MS or New Orleans 1,000 miles away, a second Middle Passage. It was a descent into hell. Word of mouth informed enslaved people that the fields of Louisiana were killing fields, as Douglass said.
“Louisiana was considered by the slaves as a place of slaughter, so those who were going there did not expect to see their friends again,” wall text at Freedom House from an enslaved man in South Carolina reveals.
The legacies of that barbarism can still be found across Louisiana today, from its incarceration rate–a higher percentage of its population than any democracy on earth–“persistent patterns of violence and abuse by officers mostly directed against Black people,” and Cancer Ally, an 85-mile ecological and human health sacrifice zone killing and sickening the mostly Black residents there with byproducts of the petrochemical industry.
Learn about Mary and Emily Edmonson, 15- and 13-years-old respectively, purchased for transport to New Orleans and a future as sex slaves, a common practice. Another detail of the slave trade in America too grisly for wide attention in the years which followed its abolition.
Twenty minutes at Freedom House Museum Alexandria exposes countless hours in classrooms as utterly wasted in understanding the human tragedy, causes and effects of slavery in the United States, where all men are created equal. So it has been said and written. So it has never been practiced. Not then, not today.
Reopening Freedom House Museum
The Freedom House Museum Alexandria reopened in the summer of 2022 following a COVID closure which coincided with a transfer of ownership and a thorough renovation. 1315 Duke Street closed on March 17, 2020, due to the pandemic; on March 24, 2020, the City of Alexandria purchased the building from the Urban League of Northern Virginia.
Over the intervening two-plus years, arduous work was undertaken to protect and interpret the building which still requires a full restoration.
The Freedom House Museum site is integral to the understanding of Black history in Alexandria and the United States and American history broadly. While this part of the country is best known for its Colonial era history–slave owner George Washington’s Mt. Vernon is seven miles from here–and Civil War era history, the Black history and Civil Rights era history in Alexandria are profound.
It was here in 1939 where attorney Samuel W. Tucker led five young African Americans to participate in a sit-in at the segregated public library, the first organized act of civil disobedience in what became the Civil Rights movement.
It was here where the law firm representing Richard and Mildred Loving in the Loving v. Virginia case had its offices. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Loving’s, an interracial couple, overturning state laws banning interracial marriages.
After desegregating its public schools, Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School won the state football championship in 1971 inspiring the movie “Remember the Titans.”
That only scratches the surface.
Visitors can dig deeper on Manumission Tour Company’s historic walking tours led by John Taylor Chapman, a fourth generation Alexandrian and member of Alexandria City Council. Manumission is the act of a slaveholder emancipating a slave.
Manumission Tour Company confronts the “fantasy history,” as Chapman describes it, which the vast majority of Americans–of all races–were presented in the nation’s education system. A history focused on slaveholding, land-owning, white men.
The half that has never been told comes alive at street level throughout one of the best preserved and most walkable historic districts in the country. Travelers with mobility challenges will find the cobblestone streets and alleyways and sidewalks buckled by tree roots cumbersome.
Beyond history, Alexandria has transformed itself into a foodie destination. Every trip there should include a Saturday visit to the Old Town Farmers Market, the oldest farmers’ market in the country held continuously at the same site. Washington sent his enslaved with produce from the plantation to sell.
The year-round market features dozens of local vendors offering everything from mounds of radiant produce to artisanal bread and cheese, granola, flowers, honey, cider, pastries, ready-to-eat meals and ready-to-drink coffee sourced from the fields and farms nearby.
The Hotel Indigo in the heart of Old Town directly along the Potomac River makes for the perfect place from which to base your explorations of Alexandria