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One hundred fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln stood on what had been a battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In what's known now as the Gettysburg Address, he declared a new birth of freedom for the nation. That same year, an African-American man named Lewis Henry Bailey experienced his own rebirth. At age 21, he was freed from slavery in Texas. His journey to Texas had begun in Virginia, where he was sold in a slave jail that's now a museum just outside the nation's capital.
NPR's Hansi Lo Wang recently paid a visit to that historical site.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Thirteen-fifteen Duke Street in Alexandria, Virginia, contains a bundle of contradictions. Outside, the four-story brick row house is painted ashen gray. Inside, colorful walls in warm reds and yellows. And more than 150 years ago...
CYNTHIA DINKINS: Slaves were held in this building. The men who sold slaves like animals lived in this building.
WANG: But today, it's the home of the Freedom House Museum and the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Urban League, one of the country's oldest civil rights organizations, headed here in Alexandria by Cynthia Dinkins.
DINKINS: And we come here every day working to empower people. So maybe some of the forefathers are probably turning over in their graves, saying, oh, my God. But we love it. We absolutely love it.
WANG: Though, Dinkins admits working in a building where thousands of enslaved men, women and children were sold against their will can come with surprises. Last year, Dinkins was working here late one night...
DINKINS: And everyone was gone, and it was dark. I can feel spirits. I felt someone touch my shoulder and it was not to scare me. I felt it was, like, you're finally here. You know, finally, this building can be some good.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
WANG: Narrow wooden steps lead to the building's basement where you're surrounded by exposed-brick walls.
JULIAN KIGANDA: You're touching the walls where former slaves were held captive until they were sold Down South. So you feel it. I really think people feel it when they come through here.
WANG: Julian Kiganda helped design the museum exhibit housed underneath the Urban League's offices. Almost two centuries later, the details of who were sold here are hard to come by. For many, all that remains are a first name, age, and price from slave manifests of ships that took them South.
KIGANDA: Sam, 28 years old, he sold for $1,182.50. Phyllis, who was 18, and she was $770. Cyrus, who was 20, and he was sold for $800.
WANG: We don't know exactly how old Lewis Henry Bailey was when he was sold from this slave jail as a child, or what price was paid for him. What we do know is that he ended up on a plantation in Texas, where he was finally freed in 1863. Details are scarce, but he did make his way back home to Virginia, the story goes by, foot. He eventually found his calling as a Baptist preacher.
PHYLLIS AGGREY: I would suspect as a preacher he was a talker. But he did not talk a lot about the slave years of his life.
WANG: Phyllis Aggrey is writing a biography of Lewis Henry Bailey. She's a trustee at Ebenezer Baptist Church of Occoquan in Woodbridge, Virginia, one of several churches Bailey started. Aggrey says Bailey often walked across Northern Virginia to meet with his different congregations, sometimes through snow.
AGGREY: This fellow was serious. I mean I wondered why he never got a horse and a buggy...
AGGREY: ...to get from here to there. But I mean, he put his feet and his whole body behind this. So he was quite dedicated.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CHOIR)
WANG: A choir warms up with scales at one of Bailey's other churches now known as the Greater Little Zion Baptist Church in Fairfax, Virginia.
The pastor's daughter, LaTasha Murphy, directs the choir here. Murphy says many in the congregation still draw strength from Reverend Bailey's story.
LATASHA MURPHY: It amazes people how if he started that with the world we were in then, look at what we can do now.
WANG: Lewis Henry Bailey, father of four children, founder of five churches and two schools, died at age 94 in 1936. Today, the building where he was sold as a slave is named in his honor.
Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
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