City plans to buy and preserve Freedom House

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Photo/Visit Alexandria
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

The City of Alexandria announced that it plans to purchase Freedom House, the historic site of a former slave trading firm, on Monday. 

The future of Freedom House, located at 1315 Duke St., has been up in the air since the Northern Virginia Urban League announced the site was for sale in October. With the city’s announcement, that future is a bit brighter for the National Historic Landmark.

Freedom House served as the headquarters for a series of slave trading operations between 1828 and 1861, including Franklin and Armfield, one of the largest in the nation. It’s estimated that about 50,000 enslaved adults and children went through the Duke Street building on their way to slave markets farther south, according to a news release.

“I think what is unique about this building is that so many of our fellow Americans can trace their family history through that building, through ancestors that went through that building, were essentially marketed through that building, which is stunning and sobering and I think is part of that story that we need to tell,” Mayor Justin Wilson said.

The Northern Virginia Urban League has owned and operated Freedom House as a museum since 1996, but in recent years, the organization has struggled to maintain, repair and pay taxes on the early 19th-century property.

In the past, the city has come to the aid of NVUL. City council approved a $63,000 loan to the organization in February 2019. As part of the arrangement, the city was allowed to operate the basement level museum, while NVUL maintained ownership of the property.

Even with the city’s help, NVUL continued to fall behind on the site’s property taxes, which amounted to about $19,000 over the past three years.

The city’s $1.8 million purchase of the site brings Freedom House under complete city ownership, although NVUL will continue to have office space in the building for the next five years, according to the release.

The Freedom House purchase will go before the planning commission and council for approval in February.

The city is exploring partnerships with the state, private parties and community donors to restore the building. Already, the project has attracted attention from people across the country who are interested in preserving the often untold history of the domestic slave trade, Wilson said.

“We think it’s a very important story that needs to be told, and it is part of a journey for the city in trying to have a broader, more inclusive view of how we tell our history in the city,” Wilson said.

Gov. Ralph Northam recommended providing $2.44 million in state funding for Freedom House on Dec. 17, as part of the annual budget proposal that will go before the Virginia General Assembly, according to the release. If approved, the money will go toward renovating and restoring the building and expanding the museum to the first and second floors.

“This is just the beginning,” Wilson said. “This is the beginning of what will be a significant effort, but it’s an exciting effort and one that there was a fair amount of energy with.”

To contribute to the restoration and expansion of Freedom House, visit www.alexandriava.gov/FreedomHouse.

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