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Tue Jul 28, 2020, 02:42 AM

The Notorious 'Yellow House' That Made Washington, D.C. a Slavery Capital

Located right off the National Mall, the jail lent institutional support to slavery throughout the South

Pierre Charles L'Enfant's Plan for Washington D.C., as revised by Andrew Ellicott. Engraved by Thackara and Vallance sc. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

By Jeff Forret, Zócalo Public Square
JULY 22, 2020

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.


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