City expands virtual historic offerings

City expands virtual historic offerings

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Historic Alexandria has had to pivot to largely virtual offerings.

At City Council’s legislative meeting Tuesday night, OHA Director Gretchen Bulova updated council on how the city is adapting its approach to telling Alexandria’s history.

“Our museums closed on March 17, but the work and the commitment to the public never stopped,” Bulova said. “Our staff quickly pivoted to providing virtual programming and educational content.”

OHA started by putting on virtual concerts at the Lyceum but quickly embraced the potential of virtual tours and self-guided walking tours, something the city was already doing. OHA has highlighted these tours more over the past few months through its #HistoricALX2U social media initiative.

OHA recently added the self-guided African American Heritage Trail, a community-inspired project facilitated by OHA, to its roster of tours, and there are plans for a southern route and additional trails in the future.

As the city started to open up museums with limited hours in July, OHA also started to explore potential educational collaborations with Alexandria City Public Schools, Bulova said. OHA has collaborated with ACPS’ social studies curriculum coordinators to create two virtual “field trips.” The lessons, designed for elementary school students, educate students on the city’s transportation history and how to use photographs as primary sources.

In November, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and Gadsby’s Tavern Museum will be open on Mondays as part of a new education-focused program.

“We heard from the community that there was a need for extended learning on asynchronous school days, so Gadsby’s and the Apothecary will now be open on Mondays for what we’re calling Field Trip Mondays,” Bulova said.

The work being done by OHA has taken on a new level of urgency, as the history of racial injustice has come to the forefront of the national conversation and the pandemic continues to disrupt every aspect of life.

“The connection between the past and the present has never been more important,” Bulova said. “In 2020, history is a critical part of the national conversation on social justice, equity and race.”

OHA’s curators are working to collect and document Alexandrians’ responses to the pandemic as well as the oral histories of those involved in the protests that began in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.

However, OHA’s top priority over the next couple years continues to be its work on restoring and curating Freedom House.

The city’s recent acquisition of the site in March and planned restoration will go a long way toward expanding the city’s historic narrative, according to Bulova.

Freedom House, located at 1315 Duke St., served as the headquarters for a number of domestic slave trading operations between 1828 and 1861, most notably Franklin and Armfield, one of the largest operations in the country.

The previous owners of the site, the Northern Virginia Urban League, had struggled to maintain and repair the 19th-century property and ended up putting the property on the open real estate market in October 2019. The city officially acquired the site in March for $1.8 million.

OHA is currently making site repairs and continuing to seek funding opportunities through state grants and individual donations. The city recently received $2.4 million in state funding to restore and research the site and eventually develop a full museum exhibit. In the meantime, OHA plans to open a temporary exhibit in spring 2021.

Councilor John Chapman, who is also founder of African American history-focused Manumission Tour Company, expressed concern that there are still gaps in what history the city is telling.

“Some of African American history in the city has a lot of gaps because, in my estimation, research hasn’t been done by historians, hasn’t been done by the city, hasn’t been captured in somebody’s thesis,” Chapman said.

Chapman pushed Bulova and OHA to get community historians involved in their work, similar to what was done with waterfront African American Heritage Trail.

Bulova admitted that, in the past, the city’s approach to telling its history was siloed and contained to individual sites, an approach that lost sight of broader historical narratives.

“As we have moved in a direction of a museum without walls in the last couple of years to interpret the larger story of Alexandria, we have identified gaps … and we’re starting to work on pulling together the research and resources,” Bulova said.

Freedom House will help the city fill in those gaps, and it has already sparked a deeper conversation about the city’s involvement in the domestic slave trade, according to Bulova.

“No one thought two hoots about that two years ago, and now people get it, that these enslaved men, women, children were shipped out of Alexandria by the thousands,” Bulova said.

In FY2021 and FY2022, the city also aims to focus its efforts on commemorating the lynching of Benjamin Thomas and Joseph McCoy as part of the Alexandria Community Remembrance Project; interpreting the history of the Fort Ward Black community and building on its telling of the waterfront’s history.

Councilor Canek Aguirre urged city staff to consider how the pandemic is shaping what stories are being told – and lost – in the community.

“With COVID-19, it’s had a huge impact on Black and Latino communities,” Aguirre said. “We’re not only shouldering that burden, but we are also losing our own histories because our communities have a much higher death rate, unfortunately. … We really need to move quickly to preserve some of this history.”