The Antebellum Slave Trade in Alexandria

Alexandria Travel Blog

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Edmunson Sisters sculpture

I received a Nikon D3100 DSLR as a Christmas gift. I had been wanting to get back into the SLR game after using a Pentax and Canon film SLR in years past, but compact digital cameras since then. I decided to go on a photowalk in Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday afternoon, despite overcast skies and threatening rain. I've been wanting to try out the new camera on travel photography, but midwinter limited these opportunities.

The subject may seem an uncomfortable one. Documenting some of the historical sites associated with the pre-Civil War slave trade in Alexandria. These historical site were ones I had not previously visited. Alexandria was an important port on the Potomac River in the first half of the 19th century and trade in ensalved people was one of its major businesses.

Bruin Slave Jail
 Alexandria remembers this chapter in its past and has preserved sites associated with it. Two are on the National Register of Historic Places.

I drove to Alexandria and parked near Duke Street. Duke Street on the West End of the city was lined with slave trading establishments in the period before the Civil War. The Bruin Slave Jail is now surrounded by modern office buildings. It has been preserved and is now an architect's office. From the 1840s to 1861, the Bruin & Hill company used the structure to house slaves that were to be sold. Most often, slaves who were no longer needed in the declining Virginia plantation economy were sold to to the company to be resold to buyers in the deep South, as far as New Orleans.

Franklin and Armfield historical marker
Federal forces siezed the business in 1861 when Alexandria was occupied by Union troops.

Adjacent to the Bruin building is Edmonson Plaza and a sculpture commemorating the Edmonson Sisters. In 1848, teenagers Mary and Emily Edmonson, from Maryland, were among the enslaved people who escaped from the slave trading ship Pearl in the Potomac River. Captured, they were brought to the Bruin Slave Jail to await ther fate. The Reverend Lyman Beecher help their fatehr raise money to purchase their freedom. Later, Lyman's daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, would incorporate their story and that of the slave jail, into her abolitionist writings.

I walked further up Duke Street and foudn the Franklin & Armfield Office. Franklin & Armfield were one of the largest of the slave trading companies, operating from 1828 to 1836.

Franklin and Armfield Office
The townhouse from which they operated was built as a residence in 1818, but soon sold. Slaves awaiting transportation to points like New Orleans and Natchez were kept in wooden cells behind the property (since demolished). Two other slave trading firms occupied the house until 1861. Today, the townhouse appropriately houses the offices of the Northern Virginia Urban League and the Freedom House Museum. (Unfortunately, the musuem was not open.)

Between the two sites stands Shiloh Baptist Church. The African-American congregation was founded in 1863 slaves freed by the Union occupation of Alexandria. The present brick building was built in 1891-1893. There had been yet another large slave tading operation across the street from where the church now stands. It became the L'Overture Hospital for wounded African-American soldiers during the Civil War. It was demolished thereafter and nothing from that era remains on the site. But, there are informative historical markes and interpretive signs along this part of Duke Street to tell the story.

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Edmunson Sisters sculpture
Edmunson Sisters sculpture
Bruin Slave Jail
Bruin Slave Jail
Franklin and Armfield historical m…
Franklin and Armfield historical …
Franklin and Armfield Office
Franklin and Armfield Office
LOverture Hospital site interpret…
L'Overture Hospital site interpre…
Shiloh Baptist Church (1891)
Shiloh Baptist Church (1891)
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photo by: missandrea81