While the Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) is going into excruciating detail to restore the Freedom House museum‘s exterior to its pre-Civil War appearance, city leaders are unsure if a sign advertising the sale of slaves might take that too far.
In a meeting at the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) yesterday (Wednesday), Gretchen Bulova, director of the OHA, and City Architect Al Cox discussed the extensive research and work going into making the exterior of the building look as it did at its period of cultural significance: when it was the headquarters of the largest slave-trading operation in the United States.
“This is a little bit different than the board normally sees,” Cox said. “National practice says elements that have been on a building for more than 50 years begin to achieve historic importance in their own right. In this case, rather than the architecture being what’s most important, it’s of cultural significance to the city and the country.”
Cox said there are other examples, notably at James Madison’s Montpelier and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, where later additions were removed to restore the original home to its era of historic relevance.
OHA plans include things like bricking up windows added later and removing siding from the building. However, one item of historical accuracy might not be appropriate for the building: a sign that says “Price, Birch & Co, Dealers in Slaves.”
The BAR supported OHA’s plans to the building but said they were less certain about the sign. The sign text would be determined in a separate Certificate of Appropriateness application process.
“I’ve been looking at the pictures of the sign that was there,” said BAR member Andrew Scott. “I’m not asking for it but, if you could paint a mural of the faces of some of the enslaved people rather than repainting the names of the owners of the building, it might be more appropriate and better signal what this building is about.”
Bulova said the OHA also hasn’t been able to find images of the sign from when it was the Franklin and Armfield Office.
“We completely agree,” said Bulova. “We need to do more research.”
BAR Chair James Spencer said the sign gave him pause, but like the rest of the BAR, he supported the extensive work the OHA was doing to restore the building.
“I flipped through the photos a bunch of times and said ‘This is really good stuff,'” Spencer said. “The sign part freaked me out a little bit but you guys have clarified that, because I think we need to have a broader community discussion about the sign.”
Freedom House Museum in Old Town is looking to replicate how its property looked in the mid-19th century, when it was the headquarters of the largest slave-trading operation in the United States.
The proposed project at 1315 Duke Street would restore portions of the museum building exterior to how it looked between 1828 and 1861. After being deferred over the summer, it goes back to the city’s Board of Architectural Review next Wednesday, Nov. 15.
The building was the headquarters for five successive slave dealing firms between 1828 and 1861, including Franklin and Armfield, one of the largest domestic slave trading firms in the country. The building was a slave trafficking hub that forcibly shipped thousands of Black men, women and children around the country.
Alexandria bought the building in 2020 for $1.8 million from the Northern Virginia Urban League. In 2018, the city started running the museum and gave NVUL a $63,000 interest-free loan for upgrades, following concerns that the building was falling into disrepair.
After buying the property, the Office of Historic Alexandria shifted the focus inside the three-story building on the lives of the people enslaved instead of the enslavers. It fully reopened to the public with temporary exhibits in May 2022.
According to the Office of Historic Alexandria, the work involves:
- Repointing masonry walls
- Masonry infill of window openings added after the period of significance
- Removal/replacement or restoration of doors, windows & shutters
- Repainting all previously painted walls
- Revealing and restoring the historic sign
- Siding replacement
- Demolition of the south slope of the existing mansard roof and portions of the east and west gable ends for restoration of the original side-gable form slate roof
A grant from the National Park Service (NPS) will help close the funding gap needed to restore Alexandria’s new Freedom House Museum.
Once a major hub for the slave trade, 1315 Duke Street reopened in May as a museum dedicated to telling the stories of those trafficked through the building. While the exhibits are open to the public, there is still significant work needed to be done to preserve the building.
The Save America’s Treasures grant from the NPS, awarded back in September, will help cover those costs.
“The $500,000 grant will be used to support the exterior restoration of the museum building, which was once the Alexandria Slave Pen, and the offices of several slave traders, including the notorious slave-trading firm, Franklin and Armfield,” the Office of Historic Alexandria said in a newsletter. “The overall preservation plan for the building includes re-pointing; repairing or replacing windows, doors, woodwork, and wood siding; improving the gutter and downspout system, and waterproofing the foundation.”
Exhibits in the museum include personal narratives, like a man freed from slavery in Texas who walked back to Alexandria, and archeological evidence such as items recovered from the yard behind the building.
The Office of Historic Alexandria said the grant will help preserve the building against weathering.
“These steps will seal the building envelope, correcting and preventing further degradation,” the newsletter said. “This work is prioritized based on a Historical Structure Report (HSR) conducted by SmithGroup in 2021 for Historic Alexandria.”
Within what was once a major hub for the trafficking of enslaved people, the building reopened as the new Freedom House Museum earlier this year. Now, the City of Alexandria is opening up next steps for the property to public discussion.
The Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) is working on a master plan for the site, weighing options for everything from a name change and exhibit specifications to a discussion of the museum’s overall mission.
A survey about the site is available online and closes on Jan. 13.
“The Office of Historic Alexandria is engaging with the community to create the Master Plan for the Freedom House Museum at 1315 Duke Street.” OHA said in a release. “This site is what remains of a large complex devoted to trafficking thousands of Black men, women, and children from 1828-1861.”
The OHA started working with the Urban League of Northern Virginia in 2018 and the city purchased the building in 2020. It reopened in May with three floors of temporary exhibits and a new focus on telling the stories of Black people brought through the building rather than the stories of the white slavers.
The OHA said it will host a series of public meetings to engage in dialogue about the site’s future.
“The Master Plan will provide a road map for the future use, interpretation, and preservation of the site,” the OHA said. “Through a series of public meetings, we hope to engage in a dialogue about the site’s mission, potential name change, interpretive focus, and role in the community. The intent is to have the stories told at 1315 Duke Street complement those told at the Alexandria Black History Museum and across historic sites in Alexandra.”
For Alexandria, Juneteenth is a day for rejoicing and reflection.
June 19 recognizes the emancipation of slaves in the United States, and the country’s second Independence Day is now a federal holiday. All City government offices will be closed on Monday (June 21) in observance of Juneteenth.
Alexandria’s roots with slavery run deep, and the city is hosting a number of events throughout the weekend.
Visit Alexandria also recommends 30 Black-owned businesses in Alexandria.
The City is hosting the following Juneteenth events:
Story Time with the Black History Museum
Saturday, June 18, from 11 to 11:30 a.m.
Charles Beatley Jr. Central Library (5005 Duke Street)
Juneteenth Jubilee, featuring Grammy nominee Culture Queen
Saturday, June 18, 12 to 1 p.m.
Charles Beatley Jr. Central Library (5005 Duke Street)
Jubilee Voices, “Juneteenth: Singing the Journey“
Sunday June 19, from 3 to 4 p.m.
Market Square (301 King Street)
With performances by the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices ensemble
Juneteenth at the Torpedo Factory Art Center
Sunday, June 19, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Guests and artists will create Juneteenth-related messages to their loved ones
Freedom House grand opening
On Monday, June 20, the City will celebrate the grand reopening of the Freedom House Museum with a 6 p.m. event at Shiloh Baptist Worship Center (1401 Jamieson Avenue).
During the 19th century, the museum (1315 Duke Street) was home to the Franklin and Armfield Office, where thousands of Black men, women and children were trafficked as slaves.
“As part of the City’s Juneteenth events, the grand opening marks the official debut of this National Historic Landmark in Alexandria and its notable story and transition,” the City said. “Slavery, race-based laws, and racial terror erased and diminished African American history and contributions from the national narrative. This Museum seeks to reframe white supremacist history.”
Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.
Visit Alexandria has put together a roundup of events and programs around Alexandria marking the occasion, including:
Steps Toward Freedom: A Juneteenth Remembrance — June 16, 2022, at 5 and 6:30 p.m.
Admission: $25 to $45 per person
The Secret Garden at the Rectory, 711 Princess St., Alexandria, VA 22314
Exciting artists and a powerful program of beloved spirituals, incredible songs, narration, storytelling and lyrical dance bring to life this new American holiday. After presenting its first Juneteenth concert just a day after Congress voted to make Juneteenth a national holiday, Classical Movements and the Coalition of African Americans in the Performing Arts partner once again to celebrate this day of joy and liberation. Enjoy a Juneteenth cocktail during this performance.
Juneteenth at the Torpedo Factory Art Center — June 19, 2022, from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 N Union St., Alexandria, VA 22314
America’s second Independence Day is a time to celebrate, reflect and learn about the end of slavery in the United States. It’s a celebration of freedom and also an opportunity to deepen our awareness of the nation’s legacy of systemic racism and oppression. Join artists at the Art Center for a shared community space in the Grand Hall to create artistic messages with your loved ones.
Juneteenth Celebration at Carlyle House — June 19, 2022, from Noon to 4 p.m.
Carlyle House, 121 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314
Presented in collaboration with C. Alexandria-Bernard Thomas and The Athenaeum, the event will be held outside in the gardens, on the lawn and the tented terrace of the Carlyle House, located in the heart of Old Town. Discover the history of Juneteenth through live music, hands-on activities, art, history and poetry readings. Activities are part of the planned offerings for the day that marks the liberation of Black Americans on June 19, 1865.
Manumission Tour Company: African American History Bus Tour — June 20, 2022, at 1 and 3 p.m.
Admission: $29 until June 1; $35 after June 1
Meets at the Alexandria Black History Museum, 902 Wythe St., Alexandria, VA 22314
On Monday, June 20, when the Juneteenth holiday is observed, join Manumission Tour Company for a 90-minute African American history bus tour to visit sites around the city such as the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, the African American Heritage Park, Alfred Street Baptist Church, Barrett Library and more. The tour will leave from the Alexandria Black History Museum at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Purchase your seat online.
Other events around town include events at the Lee-Fendall House from June 3-Nov. 13 and tours at the Carlyle House. There are also events including presentations about Civil Rights available through the Alexandria Library.
Meanwhile, the new Freedom House Museum opened last week but has a larger grand opening celebration scheduled for Monday, June 20.
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.”
The City of Alexandria has announced that the long-awaited Freedom House Museum (1315 Duke Street) is scheduled to reopen near the end of this month.
The museum is scheduled to fully reopen on Friday, May 27, with a grand opening event scheduled for Monday, June 20, which is Juneteenth. The opening comes a little over a year after the museum was originally scheduled to reopening.
The new museum is an overhaul of an earlier exhibit at the building, which was once part of the Franklin and Armfield complex dedicated to trafficking Black men, women and children between 1828 and 1861, the city said in a release. Part of the museum’s overhaul is a greater focus on the lives of the victims of slavery rather than a focus on the lives and actions of the slavers.
“The museum will be open to the public Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays and Mondays from 1 to 5 p.m.” the city said in a release. “Admission is $5 per adult, $3 per child ages 5-12, and free for City of Alexandria residents. Due to high demand and limited capacity, it is highly recommended that guests reserve tickets in advance online.”
The museum includes stories from Black Americans who were impacted by the slave trade operating in Alexandria.
The museum originally closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic and, at the end of the month, the City of Alexandria purchased the building from the Urban League of Northern Virginia.
“Throughout the pandemic, work continued to protect and interpret the building including the completion of the Historic Structures Report, research, and the creation of three new exhibits,” the release said. “The Freedom House Museum site is integral to the understanding of Black history in Alexandria and the United States, and is part of Alexandria’s large collection of historic sites, tours, markers and more that depict stories of the Colonial era, through the Civil War and Civil Rights eras, to today.”
Ahead of the Freedom House’s scheduled opening this spring, the Office of Historic Alexandria is asking for donations to help with some new exhibits and operations for the museum.
The museum was originally scheduled to open earlier this year, but that opening was pushed back to April 2022.
“Throughout this year we have been sharing updates about Freedom House as we work to restore [and] interpret this significant Alexandria [and] national site, slated to open by April 2022,” the Office of Historic Alexandria said. “As you consider your end of the year giving, help us continue telling these important stories. Your donation will help support the building as well as the 3 new exhibits that will not only educate [and] inspire, but challenge long held assumptions about race [and] equity in Virginia.
The new museum shifts the focus away from the lives and activities of the slavers who owned the building and more to the thousands of people who were enslaved and brought through the site between 1828 and 1861.
The museum is also receiving $150,000 in ARPA funding to help pay for staff.
“Support the preservation and interpretation of this important National Historic Landmark,” the city said on its website. “Located at 1315 Duke Street, this building was ‘ground zero’ for the domestic slave trade in the Chesapeake region. Between 1828 and 1861, thousands of men, women, and children were shipped or marched overland to markets in the Deep South. Since so many sites related to the domestic slave trade no longer exist, it is imperative that we preserve the building and tell the stories of the men, women, and children whose lives were impacted.”