New Freedom House Museum:
Recalling the Despair of the Past ... and Championing
the Hope of the Future in Old Town Alexandria, VA
By Craig Lancto
Steeped in a historical legacy of twists and turns, "Freedom House" is the newest and perhaps most unusual museum awaiting visitors in Alexandria, VA.
Its name is ironic. Dedicated to freedom, this museum focuses on the activities of the most successful domestic slave traders in American history.
The irony is compounded by the museum's locale in the basement of the building that once housed the offices of Franklin and Armfield. See the Freedom House photo at right.*
During their trading peak, these slave traders sold more than 1,200 slaves a year into a harsh life of brutality and exploitation in the cotton fields of MS and LA.
Finally, in another twist, the building now houses the Northern Virginia Urban League.
The African-American organization's first-floor offices now occupy the same drawing room in which John Armfield negotiated the shipment of slaves to his uncle Isaac Franklin for sale at slave markets in Natchez, MS, and New Orleans, LA.
What's to See?
The Freedom House Museum is a smart, handsome exhibition, despite the challenges of the subject matter.
In one of the museum's new multi-media presentations, narrators read from poignant first-person accounts written by slaves about their difficult lives. This is shown in the photo at right.*
It's located in a small basement that once accommodated 60-80 men awaiting transport to the south.
Original iron bars and wooden beams remain [in place] among the exhibits that explain the business of slaving and the slave market.
A reproduction of Armfield's desk with some historical documents is among the artifacts on display (see photo at left*).
To give visitors perspective, the museum offers a look at a model of the slave compound that once occupied most of the 1300 block of Duke Street.
The museum also focuses on the importance of cotton to the antebellum economy.
Despair and Hope
Lavern Chatman, Alexandria's Urban League president and CEO, likes to say that the basement represents despair, but upstairs, the Urban League represents hope.
“We want people to know and feel the sadness of the horrific past…in this building,” Chatman said. “We want people to see that hope still existed [and] I want our kids to understand that [this is] where they come from.”
From 1828 until 1836, the building served as Armfield’s residence and the center of a slave compound with separate pens and exercise yards for men and women.
Franklin eventually decided to leave the slave trade to devote more time to his own plantations.
Shortly thereafter, Franklin and Armfield sold the property to the first of a succession of slave dealers; they occupied the site from 1836 -1861.
In 1861, Alexandria voted to join Virginia in secession and Federal troops quickly seized control of the city. They converted the slave pens (which have since been demolished) to a military jail. You can see the original barred windows in the photo above.*
But three years later, the building was again converted, this time to use as L’Ouverture General Hospital for sick and wounded black soldiers. (The Alexandria National Cemetery, a few blocks south, holds the remains of more than 200 of these troops including five of the renowned Buffalo Soldiers.)
When local businessman Thomas Swann bought the slave market property as an investment in 1869, he dismantled the compound walls and outbuildings.
Some neighboring homes are reportedly built with bricks from the dismantled compound.
Similar bricks that comprise the museum's interior walls are shown at right.*
From 1875 until 1885, the site was used as Alexandria Hospital. It also served as a hotel and boarding house from 1885 until 1978.
In the late 1970s, the old slave market site was recognized as one of only three National Historic Landmarks in the city.
When it was renamed Freedom House in the 1980s the building was dedicated to the memory of one African American -- Lewis Henry Bailey -- who had been taken from his mother.
He was sold into slavery from the site. When he was freed, Bailey walked from Texas to Alexandria, where he found his mother living a few blocks from the slave pens.
Bailey later became pastor at Alexandria’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
And, in 1885, Bailey founded Ebenezer Baptist Church at Occoquan, VA. Both churches are still operating today.
The Freedom House Museum is small but highly informative. (See one of the exhibits and a reproduction of a historical drawing at left*)
If you go, keep in mind your visit is more about sensing the time, place and history of the past than about "seeing" tons of artifacts, although there are select items for visitors to peruse.
One fact is absolutely clear: this museum now occupies a historic site where many despairing souls awaited a horrific future.
You may "touch" the chains on display in the exhibit (see photo at right*).
But whether or not you do, it's certainly appropriate for people of all colors to pause and ponder man's inhumanity and to commit to making a better world in the future.
If You Go
The Freedom House is at 1315 Duke St. in Alexandria.
The museum is open to visitors from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Guided tours are available on the weekend by appointment only.
Although no admission is charged, donations are warmly accepted.
For more information visit: http://freedomhousemuseum.org.
Craig Lancto is an Alexandria, Virginia-based travel writer who specializes in history and culture.
*Photos in the above story are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Craig Lancto. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.