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

    Hope Remains for Rio Olympic Games, Despite Woes

    Facing a host of problems, Rio prepares for holding the games but experts say some risks, like Zika, may not be as grave as initially thought

    IS Use of Social Media to Recruit, Radicalize Still a Top Threat to US

    Despite military gains against IS in Iraq and Syria, their internet propaganda still commands an audience; US officials see 'the most complex challenge that the federal government and industry face'

    ‘Time Is Now’ to Save Africa’s Animals From Poachers, Activist Says

    During Zimbabwe visit, African Wildlife Foundation President Kaddu Sebunya says poaching hurts Africa as slave trade once did

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Ivorian Chocolate Makers Promote Locally-made Chocolatei
    X
    July 29, 2016 4:02 PM
    Ivory Coast is the world's top producer of cocoa but hardly any of it is processed into chocolate there. Instead, the cocoa is sent abroad to chocolate makers in Europe and elsewhere. This is a general problem throughout Africa – massive exports of raw materials but few finished goods. As Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, several Ivorian entrepreneurs are working to change that formula - 100 percent Ivorian chocolate bar at a time.
    Video

    Video Ivorian Chocolate Makers Promote Locally-made Chocolate

    Ivory Coast is the world's top producer of cocoa but hardly any of it is processed into chocolate there. Instead, the cocoa is sent abroad to chocolate makers in Europe and elsewhere. This is a general problem throughout Africa – massive exports of raw materials but few finished goods. As Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, several Ivorian entrepreneurs are working to change that formula - 100 percent Ivorian chocolate bar at a time.
    Video

    Video Tesla Opens Battery-Producing Gigafactory

    Two years after starting to produce electric cars, U.S. car maker Tesla Motors has opened the first part of its huge battery manufacturing plant, which will eventually cover more than a square kilometer. Situated close to Reno, Nevada, the so-called Gigafactory will eventually produce more lithium-ion batteries than were made worldwide in 2013. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Polio-affected Afghan Student Fulfilling Her Dreams in America

    Afghanistan is one of only two countries in the world where children still get infected by polio. The other is Pakistan. Mahbooba Akhtarzada who is from Afghanistan, was disabled by polio, but has managed to overcome the obstacles caused by this crippling disease. VOA's Zheela Nasari caught up with Akhtarzada and brings us this report narrated by Bronwyn Benito.
    Video

    Video Hillary Clinton Promises to Build a 'Better Tomorrow'

    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton urged voters Thursday not to give in to the politics of fear. She vowed to unite the country and move it forward if elected in November. Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party's nomination at its national convention in Philadelphia. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more.
    Video

    Video Trump Tones Down Praise for Russia

    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is toning down his compliments for Russia and Vladimir Putin as such rhetoric got him in trouble recently. After calling on Russia to find 30.000 missing emails from rival Hillary Clinton, Trump told reporters he doesn't know Putin and never called him a great leader, just one who's better than President Barack Obama. Putin has welcomed Trump's overtures, but, as Zlatica Hoke reports, ordinary Russians say they are not putting much faith in Trump.
    Video

    Video Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Bus

    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Silicon Valley: More Than A Place, It's a Culture

    Silicon Valley is a technology powerhouse and a place that companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple call home. It is a region in northern California that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose. But, more than that, it's known for its startup culture. VOA's Elizabeth Lee went inside one company to find out what it's like to work in a startup.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora