Freedom House Museum opens in Alexandria with new focus on the lives of those enslaved

The long-awaited Freedom House Museum had a preview event today (Thursday) ahead of the museum’s full opening tomorrow (Friday, May 27).

The museum turns the Franklin and Armfield Office, once a complex devoted to trafficking thousands of Black men, women and children between 1828 and 1861, into a three-floor set of exhibits dedicated to exploring the lives and legacies of the enslaved people who passed through the city.

The building had been home to the Northern Virginia chapter of the Urban League with the bottom floor set aside as an exhibit about slavery, but the city purchased the building in early 2020 and decided on a new museum that would shift the tone of the museum to focus more on the enslaved people than on the lives of the slavers.

The new museum is divided into three floors. The ground floor tells the story of enslaved people trafficked through the building. Some of those are personal narratives, like stories from newspaper clippings or memoirs. One of the stories in the exhibit is about Lewis Henry Bailey, a man freed from slavery in Texas who walked back to Alexandria to reunite with his family. Gretchen Bulova, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, emphasized that Bailey’s experience was the outlier: most of those who came through the offices in Alexandria were never reunited with their families.

The Franklin and Armfield Office was required to keep a manifest showing names and ages of enslaved people leaving Alexandria by boat. A replica of the manifest is on display in the main hallway, surrounded by names and ages from the list. The ages run from 27 and 28 down to children one or two years old.

Tracy Revis, exhibit designer for the firm Howard+Revis Design, said the manifest was a “Rosetta Stone” for gathering information on people trafficked through the facility, providing names and ages for victims even when no other documentation for them exists.

While the majority of those trafficked through the building were sent away on a ship, less documentation exists for an overland route that went west. Bulova said that’s the next frontier for the museum’s research. While there is no manifest like for those who were sent off by ship, Bulova said there are still other notes or references in other documents, like papers from a business partner in Richmond.

A room in the back of the ground floor highlights archeological evidence from the site, from a diorama of the complex’s layout to items recovered from the ground — including a coin from Ch’ing dynasty China, a small cameo, and a tin enamel cup used for dining. Benjamin Skolnik, city archeologist and fresh off re-sinking historic ships in Ben Brenman Pond, described the archeology at the site as a kind of sleuthing — requiring some puzzle solving and historical detective work to put the pieces together.

The second floor of the building is dedicated to stories of Black Americans from slavery through modern Civil Rights fights. The preview day featured visits by Shirley Lee, recognized as the world’s first certified Black female scuba diver, and jass music innovator and educator Arthur Dawkins.

The second floor also includes exhibits dedicated to both Civil Rights fights in Alexandria during the 20th century and today, with a note about backtracking on Civil Rights legislation highlighting the Shelby County v. Holder which struck down portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“It’s challenging in part because history is still being made,” said Karen Sherry, determined exhibition curator at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. “We usually plan exhibits years in advance and the big curatorial challenge is: who do you focus on? That problem is magnified with a 400-year sweep.”

Part of the museum’s solution, Sherry said, is an interactive portion of the exhibit that allows visitors to write the names of Civil Rights activists on cards to add to the story.

The third-floor exhibit has paintings by Sherry Zvares Sanabria, part of a series called “Sites of Conscience” that depict buildings related to slavery, worship and education for Black Americans — many of which are or were threatened with being destroyed or altered.

Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, said the goal is for Freedom House to be a continually evolving and growing museum. The current museum will remain open for around three years, then Davis said it will temporarily close again for another expansion. Part of that expansion may include access to the lower floor, where the original museum was located. The area is currently closed to the public and turning this space into a new exhibit comes with a few challenges.

For one, Davis and Skolnik said the lower floor is currently only accessible via stairs, meaning it isn’t Americans with Disabilities Act accessible unless the elevator is adjusted to run to the basement level.

Another challenge, and a more daunting one from a curatorial perspective, is the basement represents one of the darkest parts of the site: a punishment area Skolnik described as a dungeon. The basement was notorious even when the site was in operation as a trafficking hub. Skolnik said visitors, many of them abolitionists, would ask about the basement only to be lied to by the building owners that there was no basement.

“That’s the hardest part of the building to adapt,” Skolnik said. “It’s hard for people coming through to see that.”

Davis said more research also needs to be done on what took place in the basement to be able to fully tell that story.

“In everything we do, we want to put the humanity of the enslaved first,” Davis said. “We’re trying to follow best practices… There’s so much we want to do.”

The grand opening for the museum is scheduled for June 20, the Monday after Juneteenth, but the exhibit will be open to the public starting on Friday, May 27.

“Research is ongoing all the time,” Davis said. “It’s not only about the tragedy and horror, but about the resilience of African Americans.”