The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once a notorious slave pen, it is now a museum on slavery and freedom

The Freedom House Museum in Alexandria officially reopens on Juneteenth with new exhibits

Erin Smith at an exhibit about slavery with her children at the Freedom House Museum. (Julia Nikhinson for The Washington Post)
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Braden Smith, 12, gazed up at the names on the wall of the entryway, each listed beside an age not much older than his own.

Willis Brooks, 20 years old. Nancy F., 15 years old. Jacob Ransome, 12 years old.

“Back then, they could have possibly sold you from your family, too,” his mom, Erin Smith, told the Black middle-schooler as he clutched her arm. “You would be valuable. They would profit from it.”

“And they did all this inside this building?” Braden asked her. Smith nodded. As she explained to him and his two younger siblings, like the large sign next to them, this brick rowhouse in Old Town Alexandria had once served as the site of the largest operation for slave trading before the Civil War in the United States.

At least 8,500 enslaved people, including those listed by name and age on the wall, had been forcibly brought here from plantations around Northern Virginia and then shipped off to be sold in New Orleans and the city of Natchez in Mississippi.

No one knows the names of the cruelest and richest slave traders

For decades, a small exhibit recounting that story had occupied the basement of the house, while a local nonprofit, the Northern Virginia Urban League, used the three floors upstairs as offices. But as flooding damaged the basement and the group struggled to pay off the mortgage, the Alexandria city government swooped in to buy and save the property, which is known as Freedom House.

It has been transformed. Alexandria city historians have filled the small rowhouse on Duke Street with exhibits that examine its ugliest chapter but also ones that celebrate the achievements of local African Americans in the century and a half since then.

The renovated space will formally reopen on Monday, to mark Juneteenth, a holiday first celebrated by enslaved people in Texas upon learning that the Civil War was over and that they were free. But a few residents such as Smith, who lives in nearby Fairfax County, jumped at the chance to visit earlier.

Inside the entryway, Smith pointed out a ship manifest, framed and mounted beside the names on the wall. Her father was born in Louisiana, the descendant of enslaved people.

“These could possibly be our ancestors,” she told Braden, his wide eyes fixed on the wrinkled document. “You’re here because somebody survived through all of that to get to freedom. To get to us. Isn’t that amazing?”

Isaac Franklin and John Armfield, a notorious set of enslavers who trafficked people from the tobacco plantations of the Chesapeake Bay to the Deep South, used the structure as their headquarters from 1828 and 1837.

Daniel Lee, an Alexandria city historian, said the pair intentionally located their enterprise outside the limits of what would have then been the District, in part to keep away from the more respectable businesses closer to the Potomac River.

Today, however, the building makes no secret of what happened past its doors: “You are standing in what remains of a large complex dedicated to trafficking thousands of Black men, women and children,” the sign in the entryway announces to visitors. “This exhibit honors the memory of the enslaved people who created our nation.”

Most of the documents that survived the nearly two centuries since Franklin and Armfield worked here concern the two men and their business. But Audrey Davis, the museum’s director, said the emphasis of the exhibits is intentionally placed elsewhere.

Coming to terms with the slave trading history of their ancestors

“We’re not just talking about the business. We’re not talking about the men who controlled it. We’re talking about the people who lived and suffered through it,” Davis said. “That’s what we hope visitors come away with, an understanding of that suffering and how it affected African American family life for generations.”

The second floor exhibit, “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality,” is meant to look more closely at those generations and their fight for equality, featuring photos and paintings of Black figures in Alexandria and from across Virginia.

There is Albert Johnson, the first African American physician permitted to practice in Alexandria. In a room next door is Shirley Lee, the first African American certified scuba diver, an Alexandria native. Across the hall is Annie Rose, who served as a key part of the Northern Virginia Urban League efforts to purchase and take over Freedom House.

The story of Rose offers perhaps the most direct connection between the various exhibits. Her father, Lewis Henry Bailey, was enslaved in the pen by Franklin and Armfield as a child and sold in Texas. When he was freed years later, he walked all the way back to Alexandria looking to reunite with his mother. The structure is called Freedom House in his honor.

Davis, who also oversees the Alexandria Black History Museum a short walk away, said the reopening of Freedom House is the start of a new vision for the building and its role in the community.

The city plans to keep the museum open for about three years, during which she and other historians will develop a master plan for the building, continue their archival research about the site, and consult with residents on what they want to see.

“We really want to be ground zero for telling that story and relating it to other areas,” Davis sad, including the many visitors who have identified a genealogical connection with the site and with enslaved people who were trafficked by Franklin and Armfield.

The building will also get a new name that she hopes “will reflect our ongoing mission to tell the story of the slave trade” and further transform the building into a site to examine and discuss the ideas of racism and reconciliation.

Already, though, the exhibits appear to have sparked some contemplation. In the back of the first floor, a corkboard invited the first few visitors to share their reflections on what they learned. On a white index card, Braden had written, “Why were people tormented and tested in every horrible way?”