Julia Wilbur's Alexandria: The "Slave Pen"

 On the first morning after the Union occupation of Alexandria, May 22, 1861, Michigan troops came upon what had been a flourishing slave-trading establishment on Duke Street, less than a mile from the Potomac River.

First founded in 1827 as Franklin & Armfield, the place had gone through a few owners. By 1861, the building sign read as follows" "Price, Birch & Co.: Dealers in Slaves." Many Union soldiers wrote home about the building's jarring sign. Iconic photographs like this one survive:


One account talks about an elderly black man left chained in the haste to leave. According to this account, by Moncure Conway, the man became the cook of the regiment that came upon him and his ball and chain were given to Henry Ward Beecher.

The army found the building useful as a jail (holding pens repurposed for prisoners) and as refugee housing. In 1863, Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs (who often went there and brought visiting Northerners) happened to come upon a civilian black man receiving a "shower-bath" punishment--basically, stripped and repeatedly doused with cold water for a minor infraction. They lodged an official complaint, especially when they learned that soldiers used the punishment on black women. They were told the practice ended, although they could not verify this.

Mrs. Jacobs & I went to the school & to the Slave Pen. We saw a sight & learned facts that make us sick at heart... (March 26, 1863)

On another occasion, in early 1864, Julia recognized the irony of distributing anti-slavery literature to people living there.

I went alone to the Slave Pen. But few men in the prison. & I left with them some of all the kinds of Anti Slavery Tracts & pamphlets & Anti Tobacco Tracts too...What an idea! Distributing F. Douglass’ speeches, & Chas. Sumner’s speeches in a Slave Pen in Alex. Va.! 3 yrs. ago, who, would have thought this possible? (January 2, 1864)

And after the war when she visited Alexandria for the day from Washington, a former slave named Fanny Lee who was serving as a sort of caretaker for the building used an axe to extract a piece of door bolt to give Julia as a souvenir.

A woman whose family had suffered there when it was a trader’s jail was tearing off the bolts of the prison doors because two Yankee women desired to have them. (June 22, 1866)

But these two delicious "after-the-fact" events cannot mask the tragedies and outrages that occurred there for 35 years. The first traders John Armfield and Isaac Franklin, took advantage of the fact that cash-strapped Upper South slaveholders would sell their "property" to labor-strapped plantations in the Deep South. Despite protestations to the contrary, this often meant separating families and sending people born in the mid-Atlantic hundreds of miles from their homes.

Abolitionists sometimes successfully negotiated with these and other slave-traders, essentially purchasing people who were then declared free. As might be expected, there was debate about helping individual people versus putting money into a corrupt system. I know of no organized effort to stop this particular business from operating.

The building survived and (another irony) now headquarters the Northern Virginia Urban League. Its small museum includes some of the holding areas in the basement. The place once stretched over several acres.

Here it is today:


A historical marker also is in front of the building: