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Solomon Northup of 12 Years A Slave Really Could See the Capitol Through Bars of His Cell

2:01 PM, Nov 7, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9) -- If you've haven't seen "12 Years A Slave," go see it. 

If you have, you'll remember the image: the kidnapped freeman looking out the bars of his slave pen and seeing our temple of freedom, the Capitol dome.

After he finally won his freedom, Solomon Northop wrote of his imprisonment in the basement of Washington's most notorious slave pen.  

And the story is true. The Yellow House, or Williams Slave Pen, was indeed, shockingly close to the Capitol. "We are standing right near where that slave pen stood," says Lonnie Bunch of the National Museum of African American History as we talked outside his temporary office on Maryland Ave, SW. 

Northup's prison was just across the street, where the FAA now stands at 600 Independence Avenue, SW.

Northup wrote, "The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave's chance, almost commingled."

Bunch says foreign visitors wrote about it. "They're on Capitol Hill, and suddenly they could hear the sounds, the screaming of the slaves in the slave pens."

That juxtaposition, the slave pen here, the Capitol here, was no accident. Slavery was far more central to America's founding than many of us care to remember. "Slaves built the Capitol, they built the White House. So much of the streets you now walk on were built by enslaved labor," says Bunch.

A building once used by slave traders tied to Northup's abduction still stands at 1315 Duke St in Alexandria. It now houses the Northern Virginia Urban League, which has put together the Freedom House Museum in the basement.

Row after row of slave dealers once clustered on Duke St, like used car dealers cluster together now, says Georgetown University professor Chandra Manning.
 
"This building was used to enslave people, now the Northern Virginia Urban League uses it to empower them," says the Urban League's Cynthia Dinkins.

Remembering who we once were, says Bunch, helps us figure out who we can be.

Like a lot of our historic places, the Freedom House Museum in Alexandria is short on funds. The Urban League has just launched a fund-raising campaign to help keep the memory alive.

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