Alexandria Museum Tells Story of Slave Trade

By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008

The three-story brick building in Old Town Alexandria looks so ordinary: Gray, with a green door; there's nothing, really, to distinguish it from the outside. The American Society of Consultant Pharmacists sits on one side, rowhouses on the other.

But for about a dozen years in the early 1800s, at the height of the domestic slave trade, this building on Duke Street was the headquarters of Franklin and Armfield, one of the country's largest traffickers in the sale of humans.

Today, the building houses the Northern Virginia Urban League. Last week the group opened the Freedom House Museum at the site, which once served as a holding pen for slaves who would be transported for sale at markets in the Deep South.

"Most museums, the building is built and artifacts are brought in," said Lavern Chatman, president and chief executive of the Urban League chapter. "It's a blessing to be here. It's a blessing that we're the ones here, that it's not a commercial building and that history can live here and be a springboard for the future."

Most of what visitors see, read and hear in the museum are first-person accounts. Near outfits such as those that slaves had to wear for prospective buyers is a replica of a whip and an original shackle used to herd slaves during a forced migration from Alexandria to the Deep South. An interactive display delves into the stories of the free blacks shown in a picture taken shortly after the Civil War.

"You feel like you're paying tribute to the slaves that came through this building," Chatman said.

In addition to honoring the thousands of people who were forced behind the whitewashed walls and locked gates of the compound, the museum emphasizes that the slave trade was a lucrative business. As a visitor walks from ground-floor exhibits to the basement, a wall lists names, ages and prices of the enslaved. Another display shows the cost of various items at the time, listing the $1,000 price of a human next to the costs of a horse and a buggy.

"This is what we want people to know,'' Chatman said. "Domestic slave trading was an economic decision."

Isaac Franklin and John Armfield, founders of the company, made a lot of money. Franklin, a Tennessee native who moved to Natchez, Miss., and received slaves that Armfield sent him, made about $1 million in profits, according to teaching materials distributed by the City of Alexandria. Armfield, a relative of Franklin's by marriage, is estimated to have made about half that amount.

The two prospered amid a rise in the domestic slave trade after the United States banned the importation of slaves in 1808. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s, which created a boom in the production of cotton, also spurred the interstate slave trade.

Armfield moved into the building at 1315 Duke St. in 1828, and Franklin and Armfield opened for business. The company bought slaves and transported them to hubs such as New Orleans and Natchez, where demand for labor was higher and the enslaved could be sold for better prices. By the 1830s, the two founders often sold 1,000 people a year, historical documents indicate.

According to E. A. Andrews, an abolitionist who visited the business in 1835, men and women were kept in separate areas of the compound, which was on a bigger parcel than the property is on today. In one area, Andrews wrote in a document included in the teaching materials, 50 or 60 young men, about 18 to 30 years old, were held. Among them, he added, "were a few boys whose age did not exceed ten or fifteen years."

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