Freedom House in Alexandria, now owned by the city, opens June 19

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Twelve-year-old Braden Smith looked at the names on the entry wall, each listed next to an age not much older than his own.

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

“At the time, maybe they could have sold you to your family too,” his mother, Erin Smith, told the black college student, clutching his arm. “You would be valuable. They would take advantage of it.”

“And they did all this inside this building?” Braden asked.

Smith nodded. As she explained to him and his two younger siblings – and as a large sign next to them did too – this brick townhouse in Old Town Alexandria had once served of site to the largest slave trade operation before the Civil War. 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 in Natchez, Miss.

For decades, a small exhibit telling this story had occupied the basement of the house, while a local nonprofit organization, the Northern Virginia Urban League, used the three upstairs floors as offices. But as floods damaged the basement and the group struggled to pay off the mortgage, the city government of Alexandria rushed to buy and save the property, known as the Freedom House.

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He has been transformed. City historians have filled the tiny Duke Street townhouse 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 officially reopen on Monday, to mark June 19, a holiday first celebrated by slaves in Texas after learning the Civil War was over and they were free. But a few residents, including Smith – who lives in neighboring Fairfax County – jumped at the chance to visit earlier.

Inside the entrance, Smith pointed to a ship’s manifesto, framed and mounted next to the names on the wall. His father was born in Louisiana, a descendant of slaves.

“These could be our ancestors,” she told Braden, her wide eyes fixed on the crumpled document. “You are here because someone survived all of this to find freedom, to reach us. Isn’t it amazing? »

Isaac Franklin and John Armfield, a notorious group of slavers who trafficked people from the dried-up tobacco plantations of the Chesapeake to the Deep South, used the structure as their headquarters from 1828 to 1837.

Daniel Lee, a city historian, said the couple intentionally located their business outside the city limits of what would then have been DC, in part to steer clear of the more respectable businesses closer. of the Potomac River.

Today, however, the building does not hide what happened outside its doors: “You find yourself in what remains of a large complex dedicated to the trafficking of thousands of black men, women and children “, announces the sign in the entrance to visitors. “This exhibit honors the memory of the slaves who created our nation.”

Most of the records that have survived the nearly three centuries since Franklin & Armfield relate to the two men and their affairs. But Audrey Davis, the museum’s director, said the focus on the building was intentionally placed elsewhere.

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

The second-floor exhibit, “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality,” aims to take a closer look at these generations and their struggle for equality, with photos and paintings of black figures in Alexandria and all of Virginia.

There is Albert Johnson, the first African-American doctor licensed to practice in Alexandria. In an adjoining room is Shirley Lee, the first certified African-American diver, originally from Alexandria. Across the Hall: Annie B. Rose, who played a key role in the Northern Virginia Urban League’s efforts to buy and take over Freedom House.

Rose’s story offers perhaps the most direct connection between the various exhibits. His father, Reverend Lewis Henry Bailey, was enslaved in the bullpen by Franklin and Armfield as a child and sold to Texas. When he was released years later, he walked to Alexandria to find his mother. The structure is called Freedom House in his honor.

Davis, who also oversees the Alexandria Black History Museum just steps away, said the reopening of Freedom House is just 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 time it and other historians will develop a master plan for the building, continue their archival research at the site, and consult with Alexandria residents about what they would like to see.

“We really want to be ground zero in telling this story and connecting it to other areas,” including the many visitors who have identified a genealogical connection to the site and to slaves trafficked by Franklin & Armfield.

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

Already, however, the exhibits seem to have prompted some thought.

At the back of the first-floor exhibit, a corkboard invited the first visitors to the museum to share their thoughts on what they had learned.

On a blank index card, Braden wrote, “Why have people been tormented and tested in all the horrible ways?”


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