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A New Life For An Old Slave Jail

Formerly known as the Alexandria Slave Pen, this ashen gray row house in Alexandria, Va., once housed one of the country's largest slave-dealing firms.
Hansi Lo Wang
Formerly known as the Alexandria Slave Pen, this ashen gray row house in Alexandria, Va., once housed one of the country's largest slave-dealing firms.

President Abraham Lincoln stood on a battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., 150 years ago and declared "a new birth of freedom" for the nation.

That same year, an African-American man named Lewis Henry Bailey experienced his own rebirth. At age 21, Bailey was freed from slavery in Texas. His journey began in Virginia, where he was sold as a child in a slave jail.

Today, the building where Bailey and thousands of slaves once lived before they were sold is the home of the Freedom House Museum and the Northern Virginia chapter of the Urban League, one of the nation's oldest civil rights organizations.

The Freedom House Museum exhibit features wiry mannequins in typical dress for slaves at auction.
Hansi Lo Wang / NPR
The Freedom House Museum exhibit features wiry mannequins in typical dress for slaves at auction.

'Finally, This Building Can Be Some Good'

The four-story, brick row house at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria, Va., contains a bundle of contradictions: Its exterior is painted ashen gray, while inside, colorful walls greet visitors with warm reds and yellows.

"Slaves were held in this building. The men who sold slaves like animals lived in this building," explains Cynthia Dinkins, president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Urban League. "And we come here every day working to empower people. So maybe some of the forefathers are probably turning over in their graves, saying, 'Oh, my God!' But we love it. We absolutely love it."

Still, Dinkins admits working in a building where thousands of enslaved men, women and children were sold against their will can come with surprises. Last year, Dinkins had a memorable encounter alone at the office late one night.

"I can feel spirits. I felt someone touch my shoulder, and it was not to scare me. I felt it was like, 'You're finally here. You know, finally, this building can be some good,' " she recalls.

'Touching The Walls'

Visitors to the Freedom House Museum take a narrow wooden staircase lined by an exposed brick wall to enter the basement, which once served as a slave jail.

"You're touching the walls where former slaves were held captive until they were sold down South. So you feel it," says Julian Kiganda, one of the exhibit's curators. "I really think people feel it when they come through here."

Kiganda still remembers when the basement was empty, dark and dank — just five years ago, before the museum opened, when Kiganda says it was easier to imagine being locked away in a slave jail of one of the largest slave-trading firms in the country.

"We had abolitionists here [in Alexandria] who were not happy about the fact that they're seeing these slaves walking up and down these streets, dejected," says Kiganda. "People were very well aware of what was going on here."

A 'Fella' Of 'Serious' Faith

Almost two centuries after the building was last used in the slave trade, the details of who was sold here are hard to come by. For many of the enslaved people once housed here, all that remain are a first name, age and price from slave manifests of ships that took them South. Sam, 28, was sold for $1,182.50; Phyllis, 18, was bought at $770; and Cyrus, 20, was priced at $800.

We don't know exactly how old Lewis Henry Bailey was when he was sold from the Alexandria Slave Pen as a child — or what price was paid for him. What we do know is that he ended up on a plantation in Texas, where he was finally freed in 1863. Details are scarce, but he did make his way back home to Virginia, as the story goes, by foot. He eventually found his calling as a Baptist preacher.

Phyllis Aggrey, who is writing a biography of Bailey, says he kept most of his experiences as a slave private, even to his family. "I would suspect as a preacher he was a talker. But he did not talk a lot about the slave years of his life," says Aggrey, who is also a trustee of Ebenezer Baptist Church of Occoquan in Woodbridge, Va., one of several churches Bailey started after he was emancipated.

Aggrey says Bailey often walked across Northern Virginia to meet with his congregations, sometimes through snow. "This fella was serious!" she explains, "He put his feet and his whole body behind this, so he was quite dedicated."

And at another church founded by Bailey, now known as the Greater Little Zion Baptist Church in Fairfax, Va., many in the congregation still draw strength from their founding pastor's story, according to church choir director LaTasha Murphy.

"It amazes people how if he started that with the world we were in then, look at what we could do now," says Murphy, whose father is the church's current pastor.

Bailey died at 94 in 1936, leaving a remarkable legacy not only as a freed slave but as the father of four children and founder of five churches and two schools. Today, the building where he was sold as a slave is named in his honor.

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.