Across the River, And Into the Past

July 9, 2024

Thank you to our sponsors - Good Insight, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, TD Bank, and the Washington Informer - for helping us make this trip happen!

Our region abounds with histories of the fight for civil rights and racial justice. From Richmond, Virginia to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, America’s racial past - stories of struggle, perseverance, and change - is waiting to be revealed. But sometimes it’s even closer to home. Sometimes it only takes a trip across the Potomac.

On May 31 we embarked on our fourth Civil Rights Learning Journey to Alexandria, Virginia, a city whose past reflects the multitude of experiences of the Black population, free and enslaved, across the DC region. Home to a growing population of free Blacks since at least 1790, the city also played host to one of the largest slave-trading operations in the country before the Civil War. A building at 1315 Duke Street that was once part of the headquarters for Franklin and Armfield, the largest domestic slave trading firm in the United States, is now the Freedom House Museum, one of our first stops of the day.

In talks from Audrey Davis, Director of the African American History Division, Office of Historic Alexandria, and Benjamin Skolnik, Archeologist with the Office of Historic Alexandria, our group learned about the history of the Freedom House Museum.  They led a discussion about the nefarious role the site played in past centuries and how the property had been reclaimed not just to tell that story, but to honor and lift up the city’s historic Black residents.

For lunch our group traveled to Gadsby’s Tavern, a restaurant that was established in circa 1785 and played host to a series of founding fathers and presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe. While its role in the founding of the new American Republic is significant, less discussed but equally important is the largely enslaved workforce that allowed the tavern to flourish as a gathering place for these notable figures. During lunch our group heard from Dr. Leni Sorenson, who illuminated this lesser-known history and provided an intimate window into the daily operations of the building.

After lunch our group departed on a driving tour of other sites relevant to Alexandria’s racial history – and struggle –, led by Alexandria City Councilman John Chapman. Perhaps most memorable was a stop at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, which served as the burial place for about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Alexandria to escape from bondage during the Civil War. Little visual evidence remains to suggest the history of the site, but a striking memorial opened in 2014 to honor the memory of the Freedmen, the hardships they faced, and their contributions to the city.

An end of trip debrief allowed our group to discuss and dissect the wisdom and teachings of the day’s journey. For many it was the first-time hearing of these hidden histories that lay just across the river from our nation’s capital, histories of the enslaved and freedmen, of struggle and sometimes triumph, that ran parallel to the founding of our nation through the 20th century.

This trip highlighted our mission of this journey series: to uncover the stories that are often left untold, people sometimes forgotten, and a history of injustice that is integral to the tale of our communities, our region, and our country. 

Across the River, And Into the Past