History, Memory, and Reclaiming Space

I spent a few hours Saturday wandering around Old Town Alexandria, which was a part of the DC Metro area I’d never visited before. I studiously avoided King Street (is it just me, or do all of the “one-of-a-kind” stores in historic-touristy areas sell the exact same stuff?) and instead checked out two colonial-era churches and meandered down side streets. The architecture was charming and had a comforting familiarity — the historic section of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, my birthplace, is from the same period and has a similar look. But I was especially interested to see the building that once housed one of the largest slave markets in North America.

Price Birch & Co., 1862 (Library of Congress)
the same space, 150 years later
the same space, 150 years later

The slave-trading firm Franklin & Armfield purchased property on Duke Street in Alexandria in 1835, using the space to collect large numbers of slaves purchased in Virginia and Maryland before sending enslaved men and women via ship to their complementary auction house in New Orleans. A different partnership (Price Birch & Co.) owned the business when the Civil War began, and many Union soldiers gleefully reported the immediate demise of that business when they occupied Alexandria in the first months of the war. (This was one of those moments where Union soldiers, though generally not abolitionists, demonstrated a clear sense that slavery was bad for the country and had caused the war, and thus should be destroyed.)

Re-purposing the space began almost immediately — the U.S. Army turned the building and its accompanying grounds into a prison for Confederate soldiers. Most of these men were imprisoned in 1861 and 1862, while the prisoner-exchange system was still under way, and so did not spend much time in the prison, but imprisoning white southerners in a slave pen must have provoked outrage at many levels. [Interesting side note: 34 of the men died while in prison and were buried in a section of the city’s cemetery, just a few blocks away, along with Union dead from area hospitals, in what is now known as the Alexandria National Cemetery. In 1879, the Alexandria LMA disinterred the 34 bodies and buried them in a mounded grave in the yard of Christ Church.]

Alexandria National Cemetery
Alexandria National Cemetery
marker in Christ Church yard

By 1863, the building and its grounds had become a hospital and barracks for local “contrabands” (runaway slaves) and black Union soldiers. It seems an insensitive move on the part of the US government — but someone (who?) named the barracks in honor of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The same year, a new African American congregation emerged in the city and built its first worship space — Shiloh Baptist Church — across the street. It looks like the formerly enslaved men and women who flocked to Alexandria during the war were determined to claim this space, once associated with deep suffering, and turn it into something much more positive.

The slave pens were torn down after the war, their place eventually filled by a nondescript brick municipal building, and the block’s tragic history slowly forgotten. For a town that can’t shut up about George Washington and its historic attractions, there is a great deal of willful forgetting at play. But the Northern Virginia Urban League purchased the building in 1996, christened it Freedom House, and are using it as offices and a museum (sadly, one geared toward school groups and closed on weekends). A state historic marker was placed outside in 2005. And the woman I spoke with at the Old Town Visitors’ Center was very eager to tell me about the restoration work underway at the Freedmen’s Cemetery on the south end of town (unfortunately out of walking distance) — so signs of progress abound in Alexandria’s interpretation of its past.


I am very interested in the process by which a community reclaims a space and, without forgetting or minimizing negative associations, strives to create something more affirming there. Who gets to control those commemorations? What happens to dissenting voices? (Was there anyone in the Northern Virginia Urban League, for example, who objected to working in a former slave trader’s office?) It seems like an approach that could work for student projects in various types of classes — local history, public history, history and memory, etc. I’m also curious about the black communities that emerged in Alexandria during the Civil War. There’s been some great work done on political activism in contraband/refugee camps (Kate Masur’s An Example for All the Land, Patricia Click’s Time Full of Trial, and David Cecelski’s The Fire of Freedom spring to mind), so the specific story of Alexandria probably fits into established historiographic patterns and arguments. It strikes me that what happened in these spaces goes far beyond a “rehearsal” for Reconstruction, and I wonder if some comparative studies might be the logical next step.

Christ Church gate & steeple--just because I think it's pretty
Christ Church gate & steeple–just because I think it’s pretty



Source: History, Memory, and Reclaiming Space