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

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs