The family secret lurked in the background as the cousins grew up in Maine, Maryland and Tennessee. Something about the Southern ancestors, back in the Civil War days, that most of the adults wouldn’t talk about, although those who married into the family would occasionally give hints.

“My grandmother was never really forthright about it,” said Lyn Hoyt, 53, of Nashville. “She called [her husband’s ancestors] ‘horse traders’ and said, ‘You don’t really want to hook your wagon to the Franklins.’ ”

When Hoyt and her cousins finally put the clues together, what they discovered horrified them: This family of educators, scientists and physicians was indirectly descended from Isaac Franklin, the biggest and most successful slave trader in the pre-Civil War United States, who with his partner John Armfield shipped thousands of black people from their “slave pen” in Alexandria into brutal servitude in the Deep South.

Over a period of years, the cousins grappled with the revelations, found other relatives scattered around the country, and debated their responsibility as fourth- and fifth-generation descendants.

They learned that what remained of the slave-trading headquarters, a brick townhouse in Old Town, was now owned by a civil rights organization that had built a small basement museum called Freedom House. It has few exhibits and its hours are limited, but the cousins began to think it might be a good place to direct their reconciliation efforts. By last summer, they quietly started to reach out to the museum.

What they did not know was that the Northern Virginia Urban League, which owns and runs the site, was struggling to pay the $1.2 million mortgage, and that Freedom House was at risk of closing.

Then Charlottesville happened.

In Maine and Tennessee, Maryland and Texas, the descendants of Isaac Franklin were galvanized by the news of white supremacists rallying against the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, and the death of a counterprotester struck by a car driven by a white nationalist, an incident that left 19 others injured.

The time to act was now, the cousins decided.

They would visit Freedom House as soon as possible.

The slave pen

Franklin and Armfield’s large compound originally housed a hospital, kitchens, separate women’s and men’s quarters, and an outdoor space, surrounded by a high fence. Only the townhouse at 1315 Duke St. is left.

The truth of its sordid history is visible down the basement steps, where a strongly grated iron door reminds visitors that between 1828 and 1836, about 10,000 blacks were imprisoned here before they were shipped south and sold to cotton and sugar planters in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The captives were mostly enslaved people who had worked the tobacco farms of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware — although some free blacks were kidnapped off the streets, a story most recently told in the film “12 Years a Slave,” based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, who was captured by one in a succession of slave traders who bought the Alexandria property from Franklin and Armfield after they left the business.

When Union troops seized the property at the start of the Civil War, they found an elderly black man left alone in the basement, chained by the leg.

Armfield lived above the business, collecting enslaved people brought in by brokers and headhunters and eventually sending them south on one of his company’s ships, or on a forced 1,000-mile march to Natchez, Miss., or New Orleans. Franklin lived mostly in Gallatin, Tenn., overseeing those marches and the sales to new masters.

Edward Ball, who described this “Slavery Trail of Tears” in Smithsonian magazine, called the duo the “undisputed tycoons of the domestic slave trade, with an impact that is hard to overstate.”

They were also among the richest men in the United States, said Joshua Rothman, a University of Alabama historian who is writing a book about Franklin and Armfield. At the time of his death in 1846, Franklin owned more than 600 enslaved people and was worth the modern equivalent of $40 million.

The Duke Street property passed through many owners, serving as a hospital and boardinghouse. In 1978, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark. The Urban League’s Northern Virginia chapter bought the property in 1996 and opened the museum in 2008. The organization has struggled to attract visitors and maintain funding for the site despite a growing local and national interest in African American history and slavery, and a deep desire on the part of community leaders to preserve the slave pen’s story.

“All the horrors and terror that went on in the basement of that building,” said Tracey Walker, chair of the Urban League’s local board of directors. “We have to imagine people prayed that good things could happen there.”

Family ties

Neither Franklin nor Armfield have any known direct descendants. William T. Whitney, 82, a retired pediatrician from Maine, Hoyt and their cousins trace their lineage to Franklin’s brothers, one of whom is said to have introduced Franklin to the slave-trading business.

“Everyone was complicit in this,” Hoyt said.

But no one wanted to talk about it.

Whitney remembers an older relative from Harford County, Md., insisting that her mother’s family had suffered mistreatment by Union troops during “the War of Northern Aggression.” He said he grew up aware of the overt racism of some family members, an impression that stayed with him when he began volunteering in the 1950s for the NAACP in New York.

Whitney’s cousin, Jenny Van Bibber Orr, recalls her beloved grandfather, Armfield Franklin Van Bibber, walking out of her third-grade concert when they sang “Marching Through Georgia,” which celebrates the destructive march of Major Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops from Atlanta to Savannah.

“It didn’t make much sense to me, and nobody would explain it,” said Orr, 79, of West Paris, Maine. Months later, visiting him in Bel Air, Md., she sang the same song once more. Her normally sweet-tempered grandfather confronted her, she said, and “in a very, very angry voice told me never to sing that song again.”

Just eight years ago, Hoyt, a public school advocate, was researching family history when she found a cousin from nearby Gallatin, Tenn. The cousin stunned her by mentioning the family’s link to Isaac Franklin.

“It’s difficult to hear,” Hoyt said. “My family sold human beings. It’s a horrible, horrible thought. It’s like we descended from Hitler.”

Later, Hoyt received an email from a 35-year-old Houston social worker named Joy Franklin, who had stumbled across Hoyt’s name online while researching her own family tree.

Joy Franklin explained that her ancestors, too, were from Gallatin, and her family’s oral history said they descended from the slave-trading Franklins. But her branch of the family is African American.

“We know at some point, her family owned my family,” Franklin said. “Everything Lyn told me matched up with everything my great-aunt told me.”

As Hoyt learned more, she shared the information with cousins. About 10 of them wanted to consider some kind of reckoning with the past. Other relatives were not interested, or said that they bore no responsibility for the actions of their ancestors. Joy Franklin and her family watched the deliberations of their white cousins with something like bemusement.

“We always knew there were white people in our family, but we were taught to shut up about it,” Franklin said. “Because it’s nothing new for us, we don’t have any bitterness. To have bad feelings about white people in our family is to have bad feelings about ourselves.”

Down the basement stairs

Across the country, Whitney — who had visited Freedom House years earlier while in Washington on business — was designated by other cousins to contact the museum on the family’s behalf. He sent a letter in July outlining their connection and desire to offer amends, along the lines of how Germans and South Africans have expressed regret and tried to educate younger generations about the Holocaust and apartheid.

“Until now, our family has been silent about family members’ participation in racial oppression,” Whitney’s letter said. “We think it’s time now that we acknowledge our family’s role and that we speak out in some fashion against the crimes that were committed.”

On Sept. 25, a contingent of six Franklin descendants arrived at Freedom House. An additional six sent written statements full of pain, apologizing for their family’s role in perpetrating slavery, and its failure over the years to speak out about it.

The family’s wealth from Isaac Franklin is long gone, and although members came with gifts — a $1,000 donation, a family clock and a set of 11 silver spoons thought to be from Franklin’s household — the cousins wanted to be careful not to pose as white saviors arriving to salvage an institution that African Americans had already rescued and restored.

The best they could offer, they said, was to help raise awareness of the museum and make sure the truth of slavery’s impact is told to younger generations.

Walker, of the Urban League, took the family down the basement stairs, where the names of some of the people who had been held there, and their sale prices, are painted on the wall. The group passed through the iron gate, past the iron-barred window and into the brick-sided basement, where shackles share space with exhibits on the slave trade, the cotton industry and recordings of slave narratives.

“You realize that 150 people were held in these rooms,” Orr said later. “You can just imagine them squeezed together, filled with fear, parents trying to quiet their children. It’s very clear that huge amounts of suffering went on here.”

Susanna Grannis, Whitney’s sister, was there from New York with her adult daughter. A retired dean of several schools of education, Grannis described the impact of the day as “in a way, overwhelming.”

“The other horror is the silence in my family over all those generations since,” said Grannis, who has begun work on a family history that she hopes will tell the full story. “It’s that silence that supported racism. . . . The real villains were all of us.”

In the months following the cousins’ visit, the Urban League worked out the mortgage problem, renegotiating terms of the loan with the bank, and began planning a spring fundraising drive. Local activists in Alexandria, including former and current elected officials, started talking about what they could do to put Freedom House on more secure footing, including whether the city should take over its operations permanently.

The city’s Office of Historic Alexandria and the city’s Black History Museum agreed to provide staff to run the museum on Saturday afternoons in February, which is Black History Month. Seventy people came for the first set of tours on Saturday; city officials say they hope crowds will increase as word spreads.

The Franklins say they applaud the museum’s efforts and are still trying to figure out how they can have an impact on the nation’s understanding of slavery, through the townhouse on Duke Street and whatever other avenues they find.

“While I do not feel directly responsible for my ancestor’s actions, I feel a shame,” Hoyt, of Nashville, said. “My hope is that being honest and telling my family’s story could help people better understand a very difficult aspect of our country’s history. Could that be a form of individual reparations? Maybe. Acknowledging the truth is important.”

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