Columns Opinion — 07 November 2013
Out of the Attic: Notorious local slave dealer had hand in Solomon Northup’s kidnapping

(Photo/Courtesy of The City of Alexandria)

The new movie “12 Years a Slave” documents the tragic tale of Solomon Northup, a black man from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery by a notorious human trafficker from Washington, D.C.

In his writings, Northup records the name of his kidnapper as “Burch,” but it was actually James H. Birch, who would later preside over Alexandria’s largest slave pen at 1315 Duke St.

In 18th-century Alexandria, slave auctions often were held spontaneously on sidewalks or street corners. But by the early 19th century, with the importation of slaves outlawed and the tobacco crop dissipating in Northern Virginia because of soil exhaustion, shipping slaves from the commonwealth to the emerging cotton fields of the Deep South became extremely lucrative.

It is during this time that permanent slave facilities were established along Duke Street. Alexandria became the second-largest slave center in the country, just behind New Orleans.

Originally built as the private home of Brig. Gen. Robert Young in 1812, the Duke Street dwelling was leased by the firm of Franklin and Armfield in 1828 and converted into a large slave jail and pen. The strategic location of the site — between the bustling city to the east and vast farmlands to the west — allowed the firm to efficiently contain and then ship off hundreds of slaves at any one time.

In 1858, partners Charles M. Price and John Cook acquired the Franklin and Armfield property. Cook left the partnership soon after and was replaced by Birch. Soon the front facade was emblazoned with the name “Price, Birch & Co. Dealers in Slaves.”

When Union troops entered Alexandria on May 24, 1861, they found the building hastily abandoned, with one slave still chained to the basement floor. This photograph of the facility, taken about 1862, shows the main building after it was turned into a prison by federal authorities.

Although Solomon Northup was never actually associated with this site, the inhumane conditions maintained by his nemesis — Birch — in Alexandria were quite similar to those he experienced. The building has been vastly changed from its original appearance, but it still stands as the local headquarters of the Northern Virginia Urban League and the Freedom House Museum, which records the barbarism of slavery in this region.
Out of the Attic is provided by the 
Office of Historic Alexandria.

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. As a Burch, I was mortified to see the name of James Burch in the post script of the movie 12 Years a Slave. After some simple research, I found that the name of the slave trader was James BIRCH ……a fact that is easily verified. Solomon Northrup misspelled the name of the slave trader in his autobiography.

    It angers me that the producers of this film did not choose to accurately state the facts. Surely, they knew the correct spelling.

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