Slavery and their accompanying slave markets existed in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital from the very beginnings of the city in 1790. The District was created from territory appropriated from the slave states of Virginia and Maryland. Due to its location the city soon became a center of the flourishing slave trade.
As cotton became the king of crops in the Deep South, slaves from the declining tobacco-growing region around the Chesapeake Bay became surplus property for their owners. It was only logical that they would be shipped south to markets in Natchez, New Orleans, Charleston and other Deep South slave markets.
As one historian notes, “Washington offered dealers a convenient transportation nexus between the Upper and Lower South, as the city connected to southern markets via waterways, overland roads, and later rail.”
Within the District, slaves were kept in crowded pens and prisons as they waited to be sold to traders who then shipped them south. Foreign travelers accounts from the 1830 and 1840 described the Robey and Williams slave pens which stood along the Mall in the shadow of the Capitol. The two were often juxtaposed in artworks, and the presence of slave pens in the center of the nation’s capitol captured the attention of abolitionists.
The Williams location featured a modest, well-maintained two-story yellow house set back by a grove of trees. A 12 foot-high brick wall encircled the rear of the house. The yard provided space for training and selling slaves; in the basement, slaves were detained, chained to walls. A particularly infamous market, sounds of shackles, whips, and fierce dog barks often emanated from the site.
We have a more detailed description of Robey’s slave pens:
The outside alone is accessible to the eye of a visitor; what passes within being reserved for the exclusive observation of its owner, (a man of the name of Robey) and his unfortunate victims. It is surrounded by a wooden paling fourteen or fifteen feet in height, with the posts outside to prevent escape and separated from the building by a space too narrow to admit of a free circulation of air. At a small window above, which was unglazed and exposed alike to the heat of summer and the cold of winter, so trying to the constitution, two or three sable faces appeared, looking out wistfully to while away the time and catch a refreshing breeze; the weather being extremely hot. In this wretched hovel, all colors, except white–the only guilty one–both sexes, and all ages, are confined, exposed indiscriminately to all the contamination which may be expected in such society and under such seclusion. The inmates of the goal, of this class I mean, are even worse treated; some of them, if my informants are to be believed, having been actually frozen to death, during the inclement winters which often prevail in the country. While I was in the city, Robey had got possession of a woman, whose term of slavery was limited to six years. It was expected that she would be sold before the expiration of that period, and sent away to a distance, where the assertion of her claim would subject her to ill-usage.
The Federal Writers’ Project during the Works Progress Administration gives us an overview of the slave markets in the District:
“The District of Columbia, too small for slave rearing itself, served as depot for the purchase of interstate traders, who combed Maryland and northern Virginia for slaves. Since the slave jails, colloquially known as ‘Georgia pens”, and described by an ex-slave as worse than hog holes, were inadequate for the great demand, the public jails were made use of, accommodations for the criminals having to wait upon the more pressing and lucrative traffic in slaves. There were pens in what is now Potomac Park: and one in the Decatur House, fronting on what is now Lafayette Square. More notorious were McCandless’ Tavern in Georgetown; in Washington, Robey’s Tavern at Seventh and Maryland Avenue, and Williams’ ‘Yellow House’ at Eighth and B street SW. In Alexandria, the pretentious establishment of Armfield and Franklin, who by 1834 were sending more than a thousand slaves a year to the Southwest, was succeeded and surpassed by the shambles of much-feared Kephart.”
The Franklin and Armfield slave pens were located across the Potomac River in Alexandria, then a part of the District. These two men controlled one of the large slave trading operations in the United States with operations in the District, New Orleans and Natchez. It is believed that they sold between 1,000 and 1,500 slaves a year.
Their operation employed slave buyers throughout Maryland and Virginia who then funneled the slaves to Alexandria. In Richmond there was R.C. Ballard & Co.; in Warrenton, Virginia, J.M. Saunders & Co.; in Baltimore, Rockville and Fredericktown, Maryland, George Kephart; in Frederick, Maryland, James Franklin Purvis, nephew of Isaac Franklin; and in Easton, Maryland, Thomas M. Jones.
The partnership employed three different ships for the transshipment of slaves from Alexandria to New Orleans: the Tribune, the Uncas, and the Isaac Franklin.
The Compromise of 1850 abolished active slave trading within the boundaries of the District, but the trade continued to flourish in Maryland and Virginia. But slavery continued to exist in the District until it was abolished by the April 16, 1862 Emancipation Act. Slaves in the District diminished from 6,400 in 1820 to 3,100 in 1860.