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Film ‘12 Years a Slave’ has ties to DC-area site


The painful story of a free black man lured from his home in New York in 1841 to be sold into slavery, now the basis of the new film “12 Years a Slave,” has a little-known connection to a slave site that still stands near the nation’s capital.

Alexandria’s one-time slave pen complex, based out of a colonial-style rowhouse, was once the epicenter of the domestic human trade in the United States after the importation of slaves was banned, according to historians. The last slave trader at the site, James H. Birch, was the same dealer who paid kidnappers $250 for Solomon Northup of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and sold him into slavery in Louisiana.

Northup’s story of 12 years in slavery, published in 1853, is the basis of the new film from British director Steve McQueen. Now curators hope the film will spark new interest from visitors and historians in a rare slave site that still stands near the Capitol. It has been open to visitors for five years as the Freedom House Museum, now a place to learn about American history.

“What’s very unique about this building is it’s one of the few remaining buildings that the slave trade actually took place in,” said curator Julian Kiganda, who designed the exhibits. “Everyone who’s come through there, they feel moved.”

Northup’s story is among several narratives illustrating the slave trade at the time. Exhibits in the brick basement that once served as slave quarters include artifacts found there, along with the original bars and door of this slave jail.

While there’s no evidence Northup was sold through this particular site, Kiganda said it’s similar in design to other slave jails at the time. Northup wrote about being held at Williams’ Slave Pen, located near the National Mall. In the film, his cell is depicted within view of the Capitol.

Northup was captured at a time of rising demand for slaves in the Deep South to cultivate cotton. The slave-trading firm Franklin and Armfield began operating in Alexandria to help move a surplus of slaves in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware to selling centers in New Orleans and Natchez, Miss., either by boat or by land. Later, Birch operated the Alexandria slave pen until Union troops liberated the area, according to a history of the site.

Today, the house stands on a busy commuter corridor in a wealthy Washington suburb. An outdoor plaque provides a brief explanation of the National Historic Landmark site, but most passers-by likely never notice.

“I think a lot of Alexandrians would be shocked to know their city was a major hub of the country’s slave trade,” Kiganda said. “It’s a story that’s not told often enough.”

The Northern Virginia Urban League bought the building in 1996 to serve as its headquarters and created the museum five years ago. Last year, it drew about 1,000 visitors. Organizers are hoping to reach a broader audience.

Cynthia Dinkins, the president and CEO of the Urban League chapter, said the museum will likely work with Fox Searchlight Pictures to create educational curriculum for students to accompany “12 Years a Slave” when it’s released as a DVD.

The group also is working with the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association to create an African-American heritage tour to launch next year. And the museum hopes to draw future visitors from the Smithsonian’s future black history museum who would want to see a real slave site.

“I think this movie will really inspire people and really make them realize more about their own history,” said Audrey Davis, acting director of the nearby Alexandria Black History Museum. “Slavery is America’s story, and we have to face it.”



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