A Lesser-Known Black History Museum Is Getting a Facelift and Deserved Attention

The Freedom House Museum was a former slave-holding pen for one of the country’s largest slave trading companies. Today, it’s a National Historic Landmark and a museum intent on sharing that difficult past.

the national historic landmark sign for the Freedom House in Alexandria Virginia explaining the building's history as a slave holding pen

1315 Duke Street was used as a holding pens for enslaved people before they were sent to slave markets and plantations.

Photo by Michael Kariktan for Visit Alexandria

Less than 10 miles from the United States capital, there’s a townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia, that holds the keys to some of America’s darkest history: It is the former headquarters of the Franklin and Armfield Slave Pen, one of the largest domestic slave-trading companies in the 1800s. Today it serves as the Freedom House Museum, offering a rare glimpse into the harrowing experiences of the thousands of men, women, and children who were sold into bondage from 1315 Duke Street. “We feel this block of Duke Street is sort of ground zero for the story of the domestic slave trade in the United States,” said Audrey P. Davis, director of Alexandria’s African American History division, in an interview with the National Trust for Historic Preservation shortly after the museum opened in its current iteration on Juneteenth 2022.

I’m a former resident of the city and a scholar of African American history, so I was surprised that I’d never known about this museum. After a recent visit, I want everyone else to know about it too.

What is the history of this site?

When Isaac Franklin and John Armfield leased the building and three lots in 1828, they turned it into a “slave jail”—a holding pen that confined enslaved people like livestock. The large complex was a central hub in their network, and over the next eight years, they forcibly transported more than 3,750 men, women, and children by boat or in chains and on foot, to be resold for a profit to Southern slave markets and plantations. The slave jail continued to be used by other slavery businesses until the Civil War, when the Union Army took control of it and converted it into a military prison; later it became a boarding house, then a hospital and, in 1978, a National Historic Landmark. Finally, in 2020, the City of Alexandria purchased the property from the Northern Virginia Urban League, which had been running a small exhibit in the basement; the city’s goal was to expand the museum and provide visitors with a more immersive and authentic experience. On Juneteenth 2022, it reopened the space to the public.

In the next step of that mission, the city has just announced that the Freedom House Museum will undergo a facelift to restore the building to its appearance during the years of Franklin and Armfield’s operations. The project kicked off this Juneteenth and is expected to be completed by 2025. The good news is that the museum will remain open the entire renovation.

Interior gallery view of an exhibit at the Freedom House Museum in Alexandria, Virginia. The exhibit is about the domestic U.S. slave trade, and the photo shows the historic room with a fireplace, wooden floors, a wooden secretary desk, and wall panels, with text about the American slave trade.

An exhibit explains how the museum property was used during the American slave trade.

Photo by Chris Cruz for Visit Alexandria

What does the museum display?

From the street, the three-story yellow-brick townhouse blends in with the other buildings on the block. But that changes inside, where visitors enter the first-floor exhibit (titled 1315 Duke Street) and see a replica of a slave ship manifest displayed on a wall in the main hallway. In the next room, the floor is covered with a map that shows the extent of Franklin and Armfield’s domestic slave trade network in the 1830s.

As a nearby wall panel explains, the property was used as a slave pen that imprisoned those awaiting transport to the South. “They were cut off from the outside world by brick walls about 14 feet tall,” it says. “A passage with grated iron doors locked them in.” At night, they were chained to each other and to the floor.

The exhibit also showcases archaeological artifacts and the personal experiences of people who were trafficked through the domestic slave trade. I was particularly riveted by the story of the Edmonson sisters, Mary and Emily, who were sold as enslaved women for sexual purposes. While I believe it’s widely understood that rape was part of the slave industry, I had never encountered historical references to people being sold specifically for that reason. One of the historians on hand during my visit explained that rape was a significant part of Franklin and Armfield’s infamous legacy and that scholars had determined this by noting that in sales documents, some young and often light-skinned African American girls would be sold at three times the going rate for an enslaved person.

The second floor houses the Determination: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality exhibit, which traces four centuries of Black history in Virginia. A companion exhibit called Determined in Alexandria highlights some of the triumph stories that helped build the local community. Finally, the third floor showcases Before the Spirits Are Swept Away, a collection of paintings of African American sites by the late American artist Sherry Z. Sanabria.

This museum is invaluable in educating the public and honoring those who endured these horrors. I’ve conducted a lot of research about the Black experience in America, which often begins with the Transatlantic Slave Trade and moves directly to the antebellum lives of my ancestors; learning about these facilities and the men who owned them deepened my understanding.

Make it a trip

Alexandria has been home to many notable moments and achievements in Black history and culture.

What to do
After experiencing the Freedom House Museum, be sure to see the Alexandria Black History Museum, the Shiloh Baptist Church (which began as a congregation of 50 formerly enslaved people in 1863), and the lifesize monument to the Edmonson sisters, who escaped slavery and became leaders in the abolitionist movement. Manumission Tour Company runs guided walks centered around Alexandria’s Black history and culture; or you could take a self-guided walk along the waterfront African American Heritage Trail.

Where to eat

The city’s tourism organization, Visit Alexandria, has a list of Black-owned businesses and restaurants, including The Rub Chicken & Beer and Harambee Books & Artworks.

Where to stay

Stay at the Morrison House Old Town Alexandria, Autograph Collection, a boutique offering from Marriott that’s a few minutes’ walk from the Freedom House Museum and other sights in the city’s historic center.

Tykesha’s work has appeared in publications including Afar, British Airways High Life, Travel World International, and Styleblueprint. She is also the voice behind Mommawanderlust.com, where her articles examine the use of travel as a medium to educate children about histories and cultures of the world.
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