The Alexandria City Council on Tuesday will consider a short-term rescue plan for Freedom House, a financially struggling museum housed on the site of the largest slave-trading operation in the pre-Civil War United States.
The Northern Virginia Urban League, which founded the museum a decade ago, nearly defaulted on its $1.5 million mortgage in the fall.
Under the proposal the council is schedule to vote on Tuesday night, the city would temporarily take over the league’s $6,000-a-month mortgage payments, pay for a facilities assessment and apply for a $125,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to develop a “long-term sustainable plan” for the museum at 1315 Duke St., the site of the former Franklin and Armfield Slave Office.
“What good news,” said Lyn Hoyt, who with her cousins recently approached Freedom House to donate money and inherited artifacts after discovering they were descended from slave trader Isaac Franklin.
“We feel like we’ve started a conversation,” Hoyt said. “I’m glad they’re going to continue the conversation.”
The Office of Historic Alexandria, including staff from the city’s Black History Museum, would operate the museum and stage special events during the next nine months. The Urban League, in turn, would launch a fundraising campaign to repay the city for covering the mortgage, make building repairs and create an endowment aimed at ensuring the museum’s survival.
“Since Virginia was the front end of the pipeline of the slave trade, this building has national significance, not just city historical significance,” said City Manager Mark Jinks, who is making the proposal to the council. “This is intended to be short-term assistance intended to keep the museum open to see if we can generate enough attention to find a long-term solution.”
The Urban League bought the property in 1996. After falling behind on mortgage payments, the organization worked out a temporary accommodation with the bank, said board chair Tracey Walker.
The financial crisis drew the attention of former Alexandria mayor Bill Euille, who used to sit on the organization’s board, and Bill Dickinson, former chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. They worked with current council members and city employees to forge a rescue plan.
Jinks said he hopes to create a partnership with the Urban League to find a long-term solution that could result in another entity operating the museum.
“The important thing is to make sure the building is preserved and the space provides a real educational experience,” Jinks said. “This is part of the city’s responsibility: to make sure its history is preserved and the story, the good, the bad and the ugly, is told. It doesn’t mean the government has to run everything.”
The Office of Historic Alexandria began a pilot program this month to open and staff the museum on Saturday afternoons. A total of 79 people attended the first Saturday’s events, and more than 100 came last Saturday.
Gretchen Bulova, acting director of the historic office, said that if the council adopts the proposal, the city would change the museum’s operating hours, starting March 1, to 1 to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and institute a $5 admission charge. Currently the museum is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, with no entrance fee; all tours are self-guided.
Admission and event revenue would be dedicated to improving the museum experience.
The city would not charge the Urban League interest on the mortgage loan for the first three years. The loan would come due in five years, with 2 percent interest charged in the final two years.