‘Like we descended from Hitler’: Coming to terms with a slave-trading past

Published February 8
Updated February 8

Washington PostThe family secret lurked in the background as the cousins grew up in Maine, Maryland and Tennessee. Something about the Southern ancestors, back in the Civil War days, that most of the adults wouldn’t talk about, although those who married into the family would occasionally give hints.

"My grandmother was never really forthright about it," said Lyn Hoyt, 53, of Nashville, Tenn. "She called her husband’s ancestors ‘horse-traders’ and said, ‘You don’t really want to hook your wagon to the Franklins.’ "

When Hoyt and her cousins finally put the clues together, what they discovered horrified them: This family of educators, scientists and physicians was indirectly descended from Isaac Franklin, the biggest and most successful slave trader in the pre-Civil War United States, who with his partner John Armfield shipped thousands of black people from their "slave pen" in Alexandria, Va., into brutal servitude in the Deep South.

Over a period of years, the cousins grappled with the revelations, found other relatives scattered around the country, and debated their responsibility as fourth- and fifth-generation descendants.

They learned that what remained of the slave-trading headquarters, a brick townhouse in Old Town, was now owned by a civil rights organization that had built a small basement museum called Freedom House. It has few exhibits and its hours are limited, but the cousins began to think it might be a good place to direct their reconciliation efforts. By last summer, they quietly started to reach out to the museum.

What they did not know was that the Northern Virginia Urban League, which owns and runs the site, was struggling to pay the $1.2 million mortgage, and that Freedom House was at risk of closing down.

Then Charlottesville, Va., happened.

In Maine and Tennessee, Maryland and Texas, the descendants of Isaac Franklin were galvanized by the news of white supremacists rallying against the removal of Confederate statues at the University of Virginia, and the death of a counterprotester struck by a car driven by a white nationalist, an incident that left 19 others injured.

The time to act was now, the cousins decided.

They would visit Freedom House as soon as possible.

• • •

Franklin and Armfield’s large compound originally housed a hospital, kitchens, separate women’s and men’s quarters, and an outdoor space, surrounded by a high fence. Only the townhouse at 1315 Duke St. is left.

The truth of its sordid history is visible down the basement steps, where a strongly grated iron door reminds visitors that between 1828 and 1836, some 10,000 blacks were imprisoned here before they were shipped south and sold to cotton and sugar planters in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The captives were mostly slaves who had worked the tobacco farms of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware — although some free blacks were kidnapped off the streets, a story most recently told in the film 12 Years a Slave, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, who was captured by one in a succession of slave traders who bought the Alexandria property from Franklin and Armfield after they left the business.

When Union troops seized the property at the start of the Civil War, they found an old black man left alone in the basement, chained by the leg.

Armfield lived above the business, collecting slaves brought in by brokers and headhunters and eventually sending them south on one of his company’s ships, or on a forced 1,000-mile march to Natchez, Miss., or New Orleans. Franklin lived mostly in Gallatin, Tenn., overseeing those marches and the sales of the slaves to their new masters.

Edward Ball, who described this "Slavery Trail of Tears" in Smithsonian magazine, called the duo the "undisputed tycoons of the domestic slave trade, with an impact that is hard to overstate."

They were also some of the richest men in the United States, said Joshua Rothman, a University of Alabama historian who is writing a book about Franklin and Armfield. At the time of his death in 1846, Franklin owned more than 600 slaves and was worth the equivalent of $40 million in today’s currency.

The Duke Street property passed through many owners, serving as a hospital and boardinghouse. In 1978, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark. The Urban League’s Northern Virginia chapter bought the property in 1996 and opened the museum in 2008. The organization has struggled to maintain funding for the site and draw visitors, despite a growing local and national interest in African-American history and slavery, and a deep desire on the part of community leaders to preserve the slave pen’s history.

"All the horrors and terror that went on in the basement of that building," said Tracey Walker, chair of the Urban League’s local board of directors. "We have to imagine people prayed that good things could happen there."

• • •

Neither Franklin nor Armfield have any known direct descendants. William Whitney, 82, a retired pediatrician from Maine, Hoyt, and their cousins trace their lineage to Franklin’s brothers, one of whom is said to have introduced Franklin to the slave-trading business.

"Everyone was complicit in this," Hoyt said. But no one wanted to talk about it.

Whitney remembers an older relative from Harford County, Md., insisting that her mother’s family had suffered mistreatment by Union troops during "the War of Northern Aggression." He said he grew up aware of the overt racism of some family members.

Just eight years ago, Hoyt, a public school advocate, was researching family history when she found a cousin from nearby Gallatin, Tenn. The cousin stunned her by mentioning the family’s link to Isaac Franklin.

"It’s difficult to hear," Hoyt said. "My family sold human beings. It’s a horrible, horrible thought. It’s like we descended from Hitler."

Later, Hoyt received an email from a 35-year-old Houston social worker named Joy Franklin, who had stumbled across Hoyt’s name online while researching her own family tree.

Joy Franklin explained that her ancestors, too, were from Gallatin, and her family’s oral history said they descended from the slave-trading Franklins. But her branch of the family is African-American.

"We know at some point, her family owned my family," Franklin said. "Everything Lyn told me matched up with everything my great-aunt told me."

As Hoyt learned more, she shared her information with cousins. About 10 of them wanted to consider some kind of reckoning with the past. Other relatives were not interested, or said that they bore no responsibility for the actions of their ancestors. Joy Franklin and her family watched the deliberations of their white cousins with something like bemusement.

"We always knew there were white people in our family, but we were taught to shut up about it," Franklin said. "Because it’s nothing new for us, we don’t have any bitterness. To have bad feelings about white people in our family is to have bad feelings about ourselves."

• • •

Across the country, Whitney — who had visited Freedom House years earlier while in Washington on business — was designated by other cousins to contact the museum on the family’s behalf. He sent a letter in July outlining their connection and desire to offer amends.

"Until now, our family has been silent about family members’ participation in racial oppression," Whitney’s letter said. "We think it’s time now that we acknowledge our family’s role and that we speak out in some fashion against the crimes that were committed."

On Sept. 25, a contingent of six Franklin descendants arrived at Freedom House. An additional six sent written statements full of pain, apologizing for their family’s role in perpetrating slavery, and its failure over the years to speak out about it.

The family’s wealth from Isaac Franklin is long gone, and although they came with gifts — a $1,000 donation, a family clock and a set of 11 silver spoons believed to be from Franklin’s household — the cousins wanted to be careful not to pose as white saviors arriving to salvage an institution that African-Americans had already rescued and restored.

The best they could offer, they said, was to help raise awareness of the museum.

Walker, of the Urban League, took the family down the basement stairs, where the names of some of the slaves who had been held there, and their sale prices, are painted on the wall. The group passed through the iron gate, past the iron-barred window and into the brick-sided basement, where shackles share space with exhibits on the slave trade, the cotton industry and recordings of slave narratives.

Susanna Grannis, Whitney’s sister, was there from New York with her adult daughter. A retired dean of several schools of education, Grannis described the impact of the day as "in a way, overwhelming."

"The other horror is the silence in my family over all those generations since," said Grannis. "It’s that silence that supported racism. … The real villains were all of us."

In the months following the cousins’ visit, the Urban League worked out the mortgage crisis, renegotiating terms of the loan with the bank, and began planning a spring fundraising drive.

The city’s Office of Historic Alexandria and the city’s Black History Museum agreed to provide staff to run the museum on Saturday afternoons in February, which is Black History Month. Seventy people came for the first set of tours on Saturday; city officials say they hope crowds will increase as word spreads.

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