Starbucks. Dollar Tree. Safeway. Little River Turnpike is today a testament to American suburbia. But in the 1830s, the thoroughfare that runs from Alexandria to Fairfax was quite a different scene.
“It certainly would have been common, if you were in Alexandria during the years that slave trading was going on, to see coffles of slaves—those are chain gangs of male, female, children who are enslaved—being marched up and down Duke Street,” says Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum. From there, the slaves would continue west down what is now Little River Turnpike on a trip to the Deep South averaging three months.
Davis is instrumental in the coming expansion of exhibits at Freedom House, a 10-year-old museum in Old Town Alexandria that shares the story of the slave-trading businesses once headquartered there. Franklin and Armfield, then the biggest domestic slave trading operation in the country, operated from 1315 Duke St. from 1828 to 1836. Isaac Franklin and John Armfield orchestrated a massive movement of slaves from states such as Virginia and Maryland down to the Deep South, selling more than 1,000 per year.
After decades of turnover, in which the structure served as a prison for Confederate soldiers, a hospital and an apartment building, Freedom House is today the home of the Northern Virginia Urban League, which bought the Duke Street property in 1996 but has recently struggled to make its mortgage payments. In February, the Alexandria City Council voted to provide the nonprofit a loan of up to $63,000.
“The city felt we were the right partner to basically not only keep the museum open, but in effect our plan is to expand the educational experience,” says City Manager Mark Jinks.
In the coming months, the museum’s existing exhibits will be enhanced with additional stories from the domestic slave trade. Already included in its basement exhibit is the story of Solomon Northup, an African-American man born free in New York but later kidnapped and enslaved by one of the final slave traders to occupy 1315 Duke St. (a story portrayed in the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave).
Though the international slave trade had been banned by an 1807 law, nothing barred Virginian slave traders from buying slaves from nearby plantations, some of which were struggling with wheat and tobacco crops, and selling them at sizable profits to the Deep South, where cotton crops were thriving. From 1828 until Alexandria was seized by Union forces in 1861, 1315 Duke St. capitalized on this industry, moving through a series of slave traders.
Today, Freedom House is one of more than two dozen historic sites and neighborhoods in Alexandria that weave a narrative of local African-American history—sites that Davis notes for their authenticity.
“It’s an amazing city to visit because you’re not seeing things that are recreated,” says Davis. “You’re actually really experiencing the true fabric of these buildings and the people who moved through them.”
Near an exhibit on the first floor of the museum, a bulletin board invites visitors to reflect on their experience. On a small card, scrawled in pencil, are the thoughts of a recent guest.
“Let us not forget the past so it will not be repeated in the present. What was unimaginable to these slaves is now possible. We owe it to them to continue to progress.”