The Freedom House Museum is key to understanding the history of Alexandria, where the slave trade was once a major part of the local economy. Reopening on Memorial Day weekend, the museum has undergone nearly two years of renovations in order to lead visitors through centuries of Black history and stories.
The history of the Freedom House tells a dark tale. This site housed the Franklin and Armfield Slave Pen, which was one of the largest domestic slave trading companies in the United States. Between 1828 and 1836, the company’s owners, Isaac Franklin and John Armfield, were responsible for trafficking over 3,750 enslaved persons from the Chesapeake Bay area to cotton and sugar plantations in the deep south. Thousands more people were sold through the slave pen through 1861. Other domestic slave trading firms — like Price, Birch & Co., the firm responsible for trafficking Solomon Northup, who was depicted in the film 12 Years a Slave and potentially passed through the Alexandria site — used Freedom House for these purposes.
When the Civil War came, the building’s function changed. During the Civil War, the building and its surrounding site were used as a military prison for deserters, the L’Ouverture Hospital for Black soldiers, and barracks for those who fled the Confederate states and sought refuge with Union troops. Freedom House was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1978.
The City of Alexandria purchased the museum in 2020. The Office of Historic Alexandria has been operating the museum since 2019, and through this 2020 purchase, the city plans to ensure that the preservation of this rare site continues to honor the men, women, and children who were held and trafficked there.
“Freedom House Museum is a key site for understanding Black history in Alexandria and the United States and is part of our city’s large collection of tours, markers, and more that lead you through stories of the Colonial era through the Civil War to Civil Rights to today,” says Gretchen Bulova, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. “From a self-taught mathematician who mapped out the nation’s capital, to abolitionist sisters who partnered with Frederick Douglass, to the first Black player in the NBA, African American changemakers have shaped American history, and you can learn about them right here in Alexandria.”
Three levels of exhibitions showcase Alexandria’s Black history and the Black experience in America. The first floor tells the story of Alexandria’s role in the American domestic slave trade. The exhibition gives voice to the lives controlled, brutalized, and suppressed by enslavers, and restores the Black presence left out of America’s history.
The second floor features a traveling exhibition from the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Determined: The 400-year Struggle for Black Equality traces four centuries of Black history in Virginia. The third floor contains paintings by local artist Sherry Z. Sanabria, gifted to the museum by her family two years after her death. These paintings represent Black sites across the U.S., and were part of her Sites of Conscience series, which focused on African American heritage, as well as prisons, concentration camps, and mental health hospitals.
The museum is open daily. Admission for adults is $5 and $3 for children ages 5-12. Children 4 and under get in free with a paying adult. Freedom House is a self-guided museum, with museum educators available to enhance interpretation and answer questions.
This story originally ran in our June issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.