1315 Duke Street
Museums can have a powerful effect on our thoughts, feelings and beliefs, especially so when the location is precisely where the history was made. Nowhere is this more true than with the “Freedom House” on Duke Street. Built in 1816, this three-story brick building looks like any other townhome in the historic district. If only it shared a harmless past.
From 1828 to 1840, Issac Franklin and John Armfield earned a fortune by operating one of the nation's largest slave trading firms. The pair bought and shipped over 10,000 slaves. (“From Slavery to War,” Deirdre Murphy and Sarah Sidman). Franklin was reported to have made $1M before retiring. A buyer in Natchez said he “supplied this country with two-thirds of the slaves” (Stephen Deyle).
Demand for domestic slaves increased after the foreign slave trade was abolished in 1808. Between 1800 and 1860, more than 750,000 enslaved men, women and children were moved from the Upper South to the Deep South. Annual profits for Franklin and Armfield averaged $100,000 (money at that time, not adjusted to present day).
A weekly scene in Alexandria was the coffles of enslaved African-Americans marching down Duke Street to the waterfront. Franklin and Armfield owned three ships that took their human cargo to New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi. Each summer, 100 or more were led out of the city for the two month overland march.
Designed by Julian Kiganda, this small museum is one of the most moving experiences in the Washington area, an absolute must see. The self-guided tour takes you along the ground floor with interpretive markers and photos. You then walk down the stairs to the basement where slaves were imprisoned while they awaited their fate. A video with actors recreates oral histories. Information panels and exhibits tell the story of slave life and the slave trade.
After Franklin and Armfield sold the operation in 1936, a series of other owners ran the business. The last were Price and Birch (1858-1861).
After the Union army marched into Alexandria in May 1861, they found the place abandoned. The house became a jail for Union deserters, as well as a temporary place for contrabands and freedmen. A large back yard and small buildings was part of the facility.
In 1870, the slave pens were demolished. Alexandria Hospital was located there from 1878 to 1884. From then to 1979 the building was a boarding house and apartments. In 1986, the owners financed an excavation. Ten years later the Museum opened along with the Urban League.
Last year Michael Lee Pope wrote a book about ghosts in Alexandria. 1315 Duke Street is not included in his book. Who among us, however, can think this place is not forever haunted by these shackled souls?