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Alexandria set to purchase Freedom House Museum, maintain partnership with Urban League

We spoke with Audrey P. Davis, director of the Freedom House Museum in Alexandria, about what’s to come of the 1812 building and the importance of African American history in Northern Virginia.

freedom house museum exterior with white brick and red door
© jonbilous / stock.adobe.com

Black History Month is a busy one for Freedom House Museum director Audrey P. Davis. Her daily schedules are booked with events and appearances, and the museum has extended hours on the weekend to accommodate even more visitors. 

But after the January announcement that the City of Alexandria would purchase the museum for $1.8 million, things started to pick up speed even more.  

“We have a whole list of meetings coming up about the Freedom House,” says Davis. “We are still putting advisory panels together. We are going to get community input and we have been fundraising, so it’s a pretty busy time.” 

The museum has been owned most recently by the Northern Virginia Urban League. The nonprofit bought the building back in 1996 and was credited with saving the historic site, a four-story row house that in the basement, tells the story of over 50,000 estimated slaves who journeyed through the Mid-Atlantic and domestic slave trades. It was home to the headquarters of Franklin and Armfield, which during 1828 and 1836, was the richest slave-trading company in the country. 

“The National Trust considers this building one of the most important buildings in this story about the slave trade in America,” says Davis. “While it’s a horribly tragic history in America, we want to make sure people know how the roots of slave history still impact us today. And Alexandria is really fortunate in that we have so many of our buildings that remain standing. They’re here, unlike other sites where they have a story to tell, but they don’t have the space to show it.” 

It wasn’t until late 2019 after the building sustained flood damage that the Northern Virginia Urban League put the property up for sale at $2.1 million. The city had already offered a $63,000 loan for finances in 2018 and had been helping manage and operate the museum in partnership with the league since. City officials wanted to keep the building from being privately owned, so a purchase agreement was proposed and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) offered $2.44 million in his proposed budget for restoration and expansion of the museum. 

The city is set to vote on the proposed purchase agreement this month, but Davis is looking further into the future. 

“It’s going to be a long road to do the kind of interpretation we want to do, and it will be done in stages and phases,” says Davis. “We want people to not only understand the building as an architectural site, we want people to understand the business of essentially human trafficking—selling men, women and children. We want to talk about the men, women and children who endured unimaginable and unspeakable horrors. We want to showcase the Duke Street corridor and what people might have seen during that time, as well as the journey of the slaves themselves, whether that was by boat or walking. We also want to show how issues dealing with slavery still impact us today by making contemporary connections, and let visitors know that slavery was part of the fabric of Alexandria.” 

With an incoming art installation to the Alexandria waterfront by Olalekan Jeyifous this summer, African American history will be getting another site for visitors to learn about its impact on the city too. Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies will feature four silhouettes that represent Alexandria’s merchant and manufacturing history, which relied heavily on work by free and enslaved African Americans, according to the website. 

“I think it’s so great that we will have this piece of art, and that it will show Jeyifous’ artistic vision of life in the city, based on our history,” says Davis. “I think people will experience it in many different ways. Some people will come at it completely through the lens of history, some people will come to just experience the artistry, but I think it will offer something to everyone. It makes people even more aware that African Americans were a part of the fabric of this town, and that there are so many faces of African American history.” 

For more on the Freedom House Museum and what is to come, check out the website. Davis encourages visitors, historians and local residents to also explore the African American Museum in Washington, DC, as well as the African American Hall of Fame in Alexandria.

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