News / USA

One-Time Slave Pen Now a Museum About Horrors of Slavery

One-Time Slave Pen Now a Museum About the Horrors of Slaveryi
X
February 04, 2014 2:22 AM
"12 Years a Slave" is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in 1841. It is also the story of a notorious slave trader, James Birch. In Alexandria, Virginia, Birch would become owner of a slave pen where people were held before being sold as property.
Deborah Block
The award-winning movie 12 Years a Slave is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped in Washington in 1841. It is also the story of the notorious slave trader who sold him into slavery, James Birch.

In Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of Washington, Birch became the owner of a slave pen where men, women and children were held before being sold as property. Today, all that remains of the site is a single building, now home to a civil rights organization and a small museum about slavery. 
 
Thousands of slaves passed through its doors and the Freedom House Museum downstairs provides a glimpse about what they experienced. As many as 60 men at a time were held in this small space, separated from their families.
 
Ugandan-born curator Julian Kiganda can not imagine what it was like for them to know they might never see their loved ones again.

“Seeing that African-Americans had experienced on a regular basis, the separation of family. That for me was just so heartbreaking,” he said.

Most of the slaves had worked on local plantations picking tobacco. When the soil was exhausted, they were sold to plantations further south to pick cotton, says Audrey Davis, head of Alexandria's Black History Museum.  

“They were coming from a variety of places, and then being held in the slave pens until they were shipped out, or until someone was buying them directly from the pen, and then they would be brought out for inspection,” she said.

The slave pen took up an entire block, and was one of the most lucrative in the country. There was a kitchen, infirmary, dining area and an outdoor courtyard for exercise.  The traders knew that healthier looking slaves would command higher prices, and even gave them new clothes.

“The tailor shop would create the clothes that the slaves would wear at the market so they would look expensive," Kiganda said. "For the slaves, they would try to get rid of these clothes as soon as they could because they did not want to be reminded of being sold at market.”

The slaves were sold for up to four times what the traders had paid for them.

“People would pay $1,200 for a slave, back in those days, which is the equivalent of almost $30,000. And so that one slave could farm 800 pounds of cotton in one day," Kiganda said.

The metal door in the museum is a copy.  But the bars on the windows and brick walls are original.

Jacquelyn Nordorf, visiting from California, says it is chilling to imagine slaves crowded against the walls.

“It saddens me but it is our history," she said. "It was scary to be in a place where the slaves were actually kept and these people were sold for their lives.”

When they were transported, the slaves were shackled together to prevent escape and put on ships, or forced to walk long distances to plantations in the south.   

Visitors are encouraged to touch these slave chains.

“We felt it was important for people to have the ability to actually feel these things and feel the reality of what happened here,” Kiganda said.

Some people feel the presence of spirits here. The house now belongs to the Northern Virginia chapter of the Urban League, an organization that empowers African-Americans.  Chief Executive Officer Cynthia Dinkins and her staff say they have heard and seen things they can't explain.

“I felt something brush against me, but I didn’t feel threatened at all," she said. "And they [staff members] said, yes, yes, we’ve experienced things like that, doors opening and closing, footsteps."

The slave pen was closed during the American civil war, fought between the northern Union and southern Confederacy, where slavery supported the economy.  After Southern-backed Alexandria surrendered to Union soldiers in 1861, the pen was turned into a prison.  It was used to jail unruly Union soldiers, and ironically, Confederate soldiers, who found themselves captured and held as the slaves had been.

You May Like

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Battle With Islamic State Militants Carries Domestic Risks

Despite Western concerns that IS militants are preparing a Jordanian offensive, analysts call the kingdom's solid intel a strong deterrent More

Asian-Americans Assume Office in Record Numbers

Steadily deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s Century-Old House Falling Apart

One of the most fascinating people in U.S. history was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the American Indian tribe, the Comanche. He was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Parker was a fierce warrior until 1875 when he led his people to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and took on a new, peaceful life. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Cache, Oklahoma, Quanah’s image remains strong among his people, but part of his heritage is in danger of disappearing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid