Preservation Magazine, Winter 2023

How A Once-Notorious Site of Enslavement Became a Bastion of Black History in Alexandria, Virginia

Audrey P. Davis

photo by: Scott Suchman

Audrey P. Davis inside Freedom House Museum, which reopened to the public on Juneteenth of 2022.

Freedom House, a museum located in an early 19th-century building in Alexandria, Virginia, reopened on Juneteenth of 2022. Purchased by the city of Alexandria in March of 2020, the newly revamped building contains expanded exhibition space highlighting its role in the domestic slave trade, as well as Virginia’s 400 years of African American history. We spoke with Audrey P. Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum and a senior team leader for Freedom House (both part of the city’s Office of Historic Alexandria), about the site.

What is the history behind Freedom House?

Freedom House is the site of several firms that trafficked human beings between 1828 and 1861. The most notorious was probably Franklin and Armfield. We know that thousands of men, women, and children were trafficked through this building.

While the building is very tragic, it’s incredibly important. We feel this block of Duke Street is sort of ground zero for the story of the domestic slave trade in the United States. So I think this building has so much history to share not only at the local level, but at the national level as well.

How did the city of Alexandria end up taking over the museum?

When the Northern Virginia Urban League purchased the building in the 1990s, we were so excited because it seemed like poetic justice to have an organization that works to empower people of color, especially the African American community, take control of this once-notorious site where African Americans were treated cruelly and abused and enslaved. They created a wonderful exhibit.

In February of 2018, the Office of Historic Alexandria entered into a partnership with the Northern Virginia Urban League. At that time, the exhibit was in the basement. The rest [of the building] was classroom and office space. We came on during Black History Month to help manage the museum.

Then the Urban League decided they wanted to sell the building. There were a lot of maintenance issues [and] preservation issues. We felt that it was too important to let go into private hands. So we requested the city consider purchasing the building.

What work was done before the reopening?

We had new floors put in, new paint, new lighting. But the most important thing came from the National Trust, when we received one of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grants for $50,000 in 2018. That was used to help fund our historic structures report by SmithGroup. It has also set us up for the continuing preservation work that we are going to be doing in the next few years.

What do those plans involve?

We’re looking at the brickwork, looking at the windows, looking at the building architecturally. What year do we want to take this building back to?

What you’re seeing here currently in our exhibits on our three floors is temporary … [We present] a history about the domestic slave trade … and our local history. [On the third floor are] the paintings of the late Sherry Sanabria, [who captured] what is vanishing from our landscape, these places that housed African Americans during slavery … We’ll have input from scholars so that when we take these exhibits down in a few years and reopen with new exhibits, you’ll have a very comprehensive story.

We’re also looking at what we can learn from slave manifests. As more people are discovering their family history, we’re hoping we can get those manifests and have data here for people who are interested or think that there may be a connection for their family to this building. We also hope that we can use this site for discussions about race, equity, and reconciliation.

What has the visitor response been so far?

There’s a gamut of emotions. You do get people who are overwhelmed by it all. We keep tissue boxes everywhere because people often cry and often are upset because of the history. Then you have people who are dying to bring family and friends here because they didn’t know this was here. [This history] is something we need to be sharing and talking more about.
The exterior of Freedom House in Alexandria, Virginia

photo by: Visit Alexandria

The Alexandria, Virginia, museum’s exterior.

Tim O'Donnell is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

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