By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
The Freedom House, the registered National Historic Landmark and infamous location of a slave pen at 1315 Duke St., is up for sale.
The nonprofit Northern Virginia Urban League has owned the early 19th century building since 1996 but has struggled to pay for maintenance, repairs and taxes in recent years. According to city records, the NVUL has failed to pay property taxes for the site, which amount to around $19,000 per year, for the past three years.
Residents, historians and members of the NVUL came out to the city council public hearing on Saturday to implore the city to purchase the site.
“The Freedom House could provide much learning, so much understanding and so much healing. It must be preserved,” Gary Carr, former president of the NVUL said at the hearing.
“My favorite Biblical verse is ‘Many are called, but few are chosen,’” Carr continued. “You were called to public service. You were chosen to address the fate of the Freedom House. I hope that you choose to do the right thing and pay it back and pay it forward.”
The building is listed as an office or residential property and priced at $2.1 million, according to the loopnet.com listing. The real estate listing cites the building’s “historic charm” but makes no men- tion of the precise nature of that history.
The Freedom House, which includes a museum in the basement, served as the head- quarters for two notorious slave traders, Isaac Franklin and his nephew John Armfield, between 1828 and 1836.
Franklin and Armfield was one of the most profitable slave trading businesses in the country, moving around 10,000 enslaved people through the Duke Street building, according to the museum. By the 1830s, Franklin and Armfield were selling around 1,000 enslaved people per year.
“The Franklin-Armfield slave pen, the present-day Freedom House on Duke Street, was the very hell hole many succumbed to before being sent south,” Ric Murphy, national vice president of history for the African American Historical and Genealogical Society, said at the hearing. “The city of Alexandria and many of your predecessors profited mightily from this slave pen.”
Other slave traders operated in the building until the Union army occupied it in 1861.
This was not the first time the Freedom House’s declining state of affairs has come before council.
During a Feb. 13, 2018 legislative meeting, council made a $63,000 loan to the museum. The agreement allowed the city to operate the museum Thursday through Saturday on afternoons with a $5 admission fee.
After hearing public testimony from several speakers on Saturday, Mayor Justin Wilson affirmed the city’s goal of ensuring the building remains open, publicly accessible and a living reminder of the city’s past and present.
“I can say that this is an extremely active process on the part of the city government right now, engaging with a variety of public, private and nonprofit to ensure that we reach that goal,” Wilson said. “… This is something that the city recognizes is an extremely significant historic site in the community and the last thing we want to see is it fall into private hands or not become accessible to the public.”