Slave pens dotted the area around the National Mall the early 1800s. The slave trade was a profitable and booming business in Washington and highly visible near the US Capitol and White House. Slavery's presence in the capital of a nation established on the ideal that "all men are created equal" angered anti-slavery advocates and reassured slavery supporters. After decades of controversy, the Compromise of 1850 abolished the slave trade in Washington. In 1862, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act freed all enslaved people in Washington, ending what abolitionists termed "the national shame."
Were slaves bought and sold on the Mall?
Before the Civil War, the District of Columbia was an active and profitable slave depot. The Yellow House across from the Smithsonian Castle, the United States Hotel down the street from the Capitol, and numerous nearby taverns were sites of slave auctions. Hotels bordering the Mall rented basement rooms for keeping newly-purchased slaves before they were taken out of Washington.
Groups of chained slaves passed the Capitol and the White House daily. Slaves awaited sale and relocation in crowded pens and cells near and on the Mall. Most Washingtonians were familiar with Robey's slave pen, located at 8th Street and B Street (now Independence Avenue). Visitors like E. S. Abdy who traveled from England in 1835 were horrified by the presence of slavery near the Capitol and by the conditions of the enslaved people kept at Robey’s.
Slave traders were known to seize free African Americans and sell them at auction. Solomon Northrup was a free man from New York who was kidnapped, beaten, and imprisoned near the Mall in 1841. He was sold as a slave and sent to New Orleans where he labored for 12 years. With help from prominent politicians and attorneys, his family emancipated him. Once freed, Northrup published his experiences, lectured for abolitionist causes, and aided fugitive slaves.
In 1848, 77 enslaved African Americans attempted to escape on board the schooner, Pearl, anchored in the Potomac. To get to the Pearl on the 7th Street dock, most fugitives likely passed across the Mall dangerously close to slave pens. Despite great effort, there was not enough wind to sail the Pearl up river and it stopped half a mile from the dock. Their escape attempt failed, and everyone on board was captured and marched to City Jail. Most escapees were sold into plantation labor further south, and the few white participants were jailed.
After the capture of the Pearl, slavery supporters rioted in the city for 3 days and the debates over slavery in the nation's capital resumed in Congress. Two years later, one provision of the Compromise of 1850 ended the slave trade in Washington, DC, but did not end slavery. Finally in 1862, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act freed all enslaved persons in the nation's capital.