Historians say it was one of the largest and cruelest slave depots in the country, sending tens of thousands of enslaved Africans from Virginia and surrounding states into the Deep South before the Civil War.
Chair of the local Urban League’s board, Diane McLaughlin, said the board voted in April to “relieve itself of the financial burden” of maintaining and operating the museum and building. The board hoped to sell the building to the city below market value, in exchange for being allowed to retain its operations there, McLaughlin said in a statement.
But the sale, which the league expected to happen by Oct. 1, has not materialized. The property was put up for sale in June as a contingency. McLaughlin said city officials told her in late September that they intend to buy the site, and she is “cautiously optimistic” it will happen.
Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said the city wants “to avoid that property falling into private hands” but cannot take on the museum and its operations alone. “We’re trying to make sure the museum remains publicly accessible,” he said. “We’re willing to work with any partner that can make that happen.”
Alexandria City Manager Mark B. Jinks said he expects the city to determine its next steps by the end of the year. “We’ve heard from the public . . . the museum needs to remain open,” Jinks said. “There’s so much more [history] to tell.”
From the outside, 1315 Duke St. looks like an ordinary four-story rowhouse — except for the historic marker that hints at its chilling history. Between 1828 and 1836, it served as headquarters for Franklin and Armfield, at the time the richest and most successful slave-trading business in the country.
After being herded off boats at the city’s port and marched to the property, enslaved people were held in the dingy basement or in cells behind the house before being forced to walk in chains or sail on packed ships to bondage, primarily in Mississippi and Louisiana. John Armfield lived above the squalid quarters, where the local Urban League now has its offices.
Once Armfield and Isaac Franklin closed their company, other slave-trading firms operated there until Union troops arrived in Alexandria in 1861. Those soldiers found a lone black man still chained by the leg in the basement.
The small museum, which includes shackles and recordings of slave narratives, is open only on Friday and Saturday afternoons and attracts about 300 visitors a month paying $5 each, according to Gretchen Bulova, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria.
The Northern Virginia Urban League, one of 94 affiliates of the national organization, focuses its efforts on providing scholarships and services. In 2018, then-board Chair Tracey Walker said the organization nearly defaulted on its $1.5 million mortgage in 2017 but worked out a temporary accommodation with the bank. The city provided a $63,000 interest-free loan to stabilize finances in early 2018, established an entrance fee and sent city historians to operate weekend tours.
Supporters had hoped a revitalized museum could capitalize on the surge of interest in African American history that followed the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — particularly this year, the 400th anniversary of when slaves were first brought to the U.S. mainland.
But the museum shut down for three weekends this summer after a heavy rainstorm flooded the basement. Bulova said the city paid to pump out three inches of water, tear out the flooring and repair damage to the exhibits.
The building’s finances still appear precarious. Property taxes, about $19,000 per year, have been unpaid for the past three years, according to city records. Jinks estimated the house needs at least $2 million to $3 million in repairs.
McLaughlin said the group has faced challenges in fundraising, “like all nonprofits,” and has hired a firm to help it complete by year’s end all overdue IRS 990 forms, which are required for nonprofit agencies that do not pay federal income taxes. Its last report was filed in 2016.
She said the group’s priority is to preserve the Freedom House museum, “if at all possible.”
Lyn Hoyt, an indirect descendant of Franklin who has joined other relatives in trying to reconcile her connection to a slave-trading past, said she hopes the building will be purchased by an entity willing to operate it “as a museum that recognizes its historical significance.”
“We hate to see the Urban League have to give it up,” she said. “A sustainable solution is what we would hope for in order to establish the Freedom House permanently as a place that matters in the bigger national discussion around our country’s enslavement history.”
The real estate advertisement for the house describes its “historic charm” and “walkable amenities.” It does not mention the historic easement, which requires that the public have access to it once a year and will remain in place even if the building is sold. Nor does it picture the basement, where the names, ages, occupations and sale prices of slaves once held there are painted on the walls.
Michael Porterfield, the real estate agent handling the sale, said the property would be a good investment for someone seeking a historic building, despite its ties to “an ugly chapter in our country’s history.”
A couple of associations have expressed interest, but none has toured the house so far, Porterfield said. There’s “a fair amount of deferred maintenance . . . and old buildings are expensive to run,” he added.