Alexandria's African-American history exemplifies the spectrum of the Black experience in the United States, with stories of overcoming adversity and finding strength and resilience to provide contributions to the community. Since 1749 the foundation and direction of the city of Alexandria has been influenced by the presence of its African-American communities. Stretching through colonial times, to the Civil War, to civil rights-the African-American presence in Alexandria is inspiring to all. That presence has fostered a sense of respect for Alexandria's African-American heritage that is celebrated, not only by those whose families have lived here for several generations, but also by new residents as they learn of the African-American contributions to their communities.
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African Americans in Alexandria, Virginia: Beacons of Light in the Twentieth Century
Alexandria has a long and storied history; however, little is known of the city's twentieth-century African-American community. Experience the harrowing narratives of trial and triumph as Alexandria's African Americans helped to shape not only their hometown but also the world around them. Rutherford Adkins became one of the first black fighter pilots as a Tuskegee Airman; Samuel Tucker, a 26 year-old lawyer, organized and fought for Alexandria to share its wealth of knowledge with the African-American community by opening its libraries to all colors and creeds. Discover a vibrant past that, through this record, will be remembered forever as Alexandria's beacon of hope and light. Published only weeks ago, this new work is already in its second printing, and selling fast! To purchase a copy, visit the Alexandria Visitors Center at Ramsay House, 221 King Street or online from the Historic Alexandria Shop.
12 Years a Slave Movie and the Alexandria Connection
In the stunning true story told in the Oscar-nominated film 12 Years a Slave, free Black man Solomon Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he subsequently spends an agonizing twelve years in captivity
In 18th-century Alexandria, slave auctions were often spontaneously held 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 due to crop exhaustion, the movement of slaves from Virginia to the emerging cotton fields of the Deep South became extremely lucrative. It is during this time that permanent facilities were established along Duke Street, and Alexandria became the second largest slave center in the country, just behind New Orleans. Originally built as the private home of Brig. General Robert Young in 1812, by 1828 the Duke Street dwelling was leased by the firm of Franklin and Armfield 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, facilitated the containment and efficient movement of hundreds of enslaved African Americans at any one time.
In 1858, partners Charles M. Price and John Cook acquired the Franklin and Armfield property, but soon after, Cook left the partnership, replaced by James Burch (Birch). Soon the front façade was emblazoned with the name "Price, Birch and Co. Dealers in Slaves." James Burch (Birch), the DC-based slave dealer responsible for selling the real Northup into slavery, would go on to become one of the last owners of one of the largest slave trading companies in the country, Franklin and Armfield in Alexandria, from 1859 to 1861. The company exported over 3,750 slaves to the new cotton and sugar plantations of the Deep South.
At the start of the Civil War, when Union troops entered Alexandria on May 24, 1861, they found the building hastily abandoned, with one slave stilled chained to the basement floor. The photo to the right, taken in about 1862, shows the main building after it was adapted for use as a prison by Federal authorities.
Today the building, owned by the Northern Virginia Urban League, is home to the Freedom House museum. Here, visitors stand witness to the powerful stories of the enslaved in the same space where they were once held. The original bars, bricked walls and artifacts are tangible reminders of this dark time in our nation's history. First-person slave narratives told through video and exhibits include the story of Solomon Northup. The Freedom House slave pen is remarkably similar to that which is featured in the movie, giving visitors a palpable sense of what slave pens were like during that era.
Click here to learn more about the connection, or step inside Freedom House with NBC and CBS.
Experience an Extraordinary History
Walk through the rich and bountiful timeline of African-American history in America with our African American Historic Sites Self-Guided Walking Tour (which includes more than 15 attractions throughout Alexandria) and experience history come to life in a remarkable range of historic sites:
Freedom House - On the eve of the Civil War, this building was known as the Franklin and Armfield Slave Office & Pen, one of the largest such businesses in the country. In 1859, the company fell under the ownership of notorious slave owner James Birch, who oversaw the exportation of nearly 4,000 slaves, including Solomon Northup, the free African American whose harrowing story is depicted in the Oscar-nominated 12 Years a Slave. Though Birch came to Alexandria after the time of Northup's story, the site is remarkably similar to that depicted in the film, and even includes a video and exhibit on Northup. Today Freedom House is home to the Northern Virginia Urban League, the local affiliate of the nation's oldest and largest community-based movement devoted to empowering African Americans. A small, innovative museum dedicated to telling the story of the men, women and children who began their harrowing journey here is found in the basement, where slaves were once housed.
Alexandria Black History Museum - In 1939, African-American attorney Samuel Tucker organized the civil rights movement's first sit-in. It was held at the Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Public Library to advocate for desegregation of the public libraries, ultimately making headlines across the country. Charges against Samuel Tucker and his five colleagues were dropped. In 1940, Alexandria built the small Robinson Library for African Americans, now part of the Alexandria Black History Museum, which focuses on both national and local aspects of African-American contributions and offers changing exhibits.
African American Heritage Park- One of loveliest parks in the city, the nine-acre green space and wetland is anchored by the sculpture "Truths that Rise from the Roots - Remembered" by Jerome Meadows. The park was established after archaeologists found it to be the site of an African-American cemetery and 21 gravestones were preserved.
These are just three of the many places offering insights into Alexandria's African-American experience. In the near future, these sites will be joined by Freedmen's Cemetery, a memorial currently under construction. Be sure to also check out the Alexandria Archaeology Museum and Fort Ward Park.
Additional Learning Resources
• The Edmonson Sisters of Alexandria - These sisters became figures of the anti-slavery movement after they tried to escape Alexandria and were caught in 1848. Their story sparked a national controversy as activists struggled to free them.
• African American Historic Sites Self-Guided Walking Tour - Includes history and stops at over 15 sites throughout Alexandria.
• A Remarkable & Courageous Journey - Alexandria's African-American history exemplifies the spectrum of black experience in the United States - from slavery to freedom, from freedom to equality, and from equality to integration. The award-winning "A Remarkable & Courageous Journey" tells the story of the tremendous courage and accomplishments of Alexandria's African Americans from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Learn about Benjamin Banneker, who endured harsh conditions to help establish our nation's capital. Meet the Edmonsons, two enslaved sisters captured while making a daring run for freedom. Read about wounded United States Colored Troops who petitioned the Federal Government to allow black Civil War soldiers to be buried in the Soldier's Cemetery. Discover the five young black men who led a non-violent sit-in protest in Alexandria decades before the famous Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in.
• Alexandria Black History Museum and Related Sites - Downloadable PDF courtesy of the Office of Historic Alexandria.