The Notorious ‘Yellow House’ That Made Washington, D.C. a Slavery CapitalRoundup
tags: slavery, Civil War, Washington DC
Jeff Forret is a professor of history and distinguished faculty research fellow at Lamar University. His latest book is Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts.
Washington, D.C. was a capital not just of the United States, but of slavery, serving as a major depot in the domestic slave trade. In the District, enslaved men, women and children from homes and families in the Chesapeake were held and then forcibly expelled to the cotton frontier of the Deep South, as well as to Louisiana’s sugar plantations.
Slave dealers bought enslaved individuals whom owners deemed surplus and warehoused them at pens in the District of Columbia until they had assembled a full shipment for removal southward. Half a mile west of the U.S. Capitol, and just south of the National Mall (and today, across the street from the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden), sat William H. Williams’ notorious private slave jail, known as the Yellow House.
By the mid-1830s, the Yellow House was one more piece of the machinery that controlled slave society. Whip-wielding owners, overseers, slave patrollers, slave catchers with vicious dogs, local militias and a generally vigilant white population, who routinely asked to see the passes of enslaved people whom they encountered on the roads, all conspired against a freedom seeker’s chances of a successful flight. Private and public jails lent further institutional support to slavery, even in the heart of the nation’s capital.
Some slave owners visiting or conducting business in Washington detained their bondpeople in the Yellow House for safekeeping, temporarily, for a 25-cent per day fee. But mostly it was a place for assembling enslaved people in the Chesapeake who faced imminent removal to the Lower South and permanent separation from friends, family, and kin. Abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier condemned “the dreadful amount of human agony and suffering” endemic to the jail.
The most graphic, terrifying descriptions of the Yellow House come to us from its most famous prisoner, the kidnapped Solomon Northup, who recounted his experiences there in Twelve Years a Slave. Northup, a free Black man from the North, was lured to Washington in 1841 by two white men’s false promises of lucrative employment. While in the capital, the men drugged their mark into unconsciousness, and Northup awoke enchained in the Yellow House’s basement dungeon. He vividly described the scene when his captor, slave trader James H. Birch, arrived, gave Northup a fictive history as a runaway slave from Georgia and informed him that he would be sold. When Northup protested, Birch administered a severe thrashing with a paddle and, when that broke, a rope.
Northup, like most who passed through the Yellow House’s iron gate, was destined for sale in the Deep South. A few of William H. Williams’ captives attempted to evade that fate. In October 1840, Williams’ younger brother and partner in the slave trade, Thomas, purchased an enslaved man named John at Sinclair’s Tavern in Loudoun County, Virginia, for $600. Twenty years old, less than five feet tall, but referred to by the National Intelligencer as “stout made,” John escaped from Williams’ clutches while still in Virginia, but he was eventually apprehended in Maryland and retrieved by someone under William H. Williams’ employ. Despite his efforts to resist, John, like thousands of other enslaved people who ended up in the Williamses’ possession, was conveyed to the New Orleans slave market for auction to the highest bidder.
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