Oscar-Winner "12 Years a Slave" is a Reminder of the Local Slave Trade

Scene in the slave pen at Washington. From the slave narrative of Solomon Northup, a free African American captured in Washington, DC, and enslaved for twelve years. Image date: ca. 1853.
The scene in the slave pen in Washington. From the slave narrative of Solomon Northup, a free African American captured in Washington, DC, and enslaved for twelve years. (Image date: ca. 1853)

Director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, serves to highlight a horrific and shameful part of local history — the area's role as a transit depot and resale market for humans held in involuntary servitude.

The acclaimed film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American violinist who in 1841 traveled from his home in New York to Washington, DC, with the promise of a high-paying job as a circus musician. He didn't know his prospective employers actually were slave traders. 

According to a book Northup later wrote about his ordeal, he arrived in Washington by train in early April of 1841, the evening before President William Henry Harrison's funeral. The next day, Northrup witnessed the capital in mourning: "The roar of cannon and tolling of bells filled the air, while many houses were shrouded with crepe, and the streets were black with people." He watched as Harrison's funeral caisson and the two-mile-long procession behind it rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue, with windows breaking each time a ceremonial cannon was fired. The clandestine slave traders then took Northup to several District saloons and encouraged him to drink, something to which he was unaccustomed. Then, they retired to Gadsby's Hotel at Pennsylvania Avenue and 6th Street NW. That night, Northup recalled he felt delirious and was seized by a powerful thirst, and had to leave his room and go to the basement kitchen, where the hotel's black servants gave him some water. After that, events began to blur. Northup hazily recalled hearing voices in his room, and recalled being taken to a doctor and given some sort of medicine. 

When he finally awoke with a severe headache, it seemed to him as if days had passed. He was startled to find himself in a dark room, bound in chains. As he recalled, "I was sitting upon a low bench, made of rough boards, and without coat or hat. I was handcuffed. Around my ankles were a pair of heavy fetters. One end of a chain was fastened to a large rig in the floor, the other to the fetters on my ankles. I tried in vain to stand upon my feet."

Northup was confined in a private prison called Williams' Slave Pen, located at the present site of the Federal Aviation Administration at 800 Independence Avenue SW. Eventually, the cell door opened, and in the light, Northup saw that his cell was a room about 12 feet square, with walls of solid brick and a heavy plank floor, and one small window "crossed with great iron bars" and covered with a shutter that blocked the outside light. Outside, there was a prison yard, surrounded by a brick wall about 10 or 12 feet high. He was confronted by a man whom he identified in his book as James H. Birch, "a well-known slave-trader in Washington." His captor asked: "Well, my boy, how do you feel now?"

Birch (whose name is spelled "Burch" in the book and film), was a prominent local slave merchant, who lived in a hotel a few blocks from the one from which Northup was abducted. Birch placed newspaper ads, announcing that he was in the market for enslaved African-Americans that he could then re-sell in the South.

Unfortunately, he was far from an aberration. According to historian Josephine F. Pacheco, in the years prior to the Civil War, slave trading was a thriving local business. It was practiced by middlemen who congregated in three local taverns — McCandless' tavern at Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in Georgetown, Lafayette tavern on F Street between 13th and 14th streets NW, and Lloyd's at the corner of 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Some local hotels actually had jail cells in the basement, so that guests who were slave-traders or purchasers could confine their captives overnight while they themselves dined, drank and slept in comfortable beds above.

Northup protested that he was a free man, which led to a severe beating from his captors. Eventually, a few nights later, he recalled being ordered with other slaves to grab their blankets. The group was handcuffed and then forced to march in silence through the streets of Washington to a steamboat, which took the captives down the Potomac — the beginning of their journey into the South, where they would be forced to labor. It was the start of an odyssey of suffering and degradation, in which Northup was enslaved on a Louisiana cotton plantation. Ultimately, however, Northup confided his story to a white carpenter who was an abolitionist, and he contacted Northup's family and supporters in New York, who engineered his release in 1853.

The April 1862 federal law that finally abolished slavery in DC. Source: National Archives (Note: click on image to see the full-size, zoomable document).
The April 1862 federal law that finally abolished slavery in DC. Source: National Archives (Note: click on image to see the full-size document).

After obtaining his freedom, Northup sought justice and filed a criminal complaint in the District that led to Birch being arrested in January 1853, according to a contemporaneous New York Times account of Northup's case. His $3,000 bail was paid by a fellow slave trader. But when the case got in front of a magistrate, he refused to allow Northup's testimony, because of his race. He did allow Birch's colleague to testify that the two slave traders who'd originally captured Northup had approached Birch in a tavern and misled him by describing Northup as an escaped slave from Georgia, whom they had just captured. According to Northup biographers Judith Bloom Fraden and Dennis Brindell, after Birch escaped punishment, he exacerbated the injustice by giving a deposition on behalf of Joseph Russell and Alexander Merrill, the men who originally had kidnapped Northup, when they were tried in New York in 1854. They also were acquitted. Birch continued to trade slaves at his own slave pen in Alexandria, Va., until the Civil War, when his business was shut down by Union troops when they occupied the Virginia city in 1861, and found slaves still in chains in his basement. Birch's prison, located at 1315 Duke Street, is now the site of the Freedom House Museum. But it wasn't until the following year that President Lincoln signed into law a bill abolishing slavery in Washington itself.

Last Updated: 
November 5, 2020