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SEPT. 1-28

In 1841, New York native Solomon Northrup was visiting Washington, D.C., when he was captured by James H. Burch, a slave trader. Despite Northrup’s having been a free man since birth, under the law at the time, “the oaths of any two villains (the capturer and the claimant) are sufficient to confine a free man to slavery for life,” as celebrated fugitive slave Frederick Douglass wrote. Northrup was imprisoned in a slave pen: “A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled….Such is a correct description as it was in 1841, of Williams’ slave pen in Washington, in one of the cellars of which I found myself so unaccountably confined.” By 1850, flouting of fugitive laws in the North was so widespread that penalties were added for anyone aiding runaway slaves, including federal marshals who failed to arrest alleged runaways. Ironically, but in the spirit of compromise which characterized legislation before the Civil War, in September of the same year, Congress passed a bill ending the slave trade in Washington, D.C. By that time, Northrup was enslaved on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. The document intended to end the slave trade is on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., from Friday, Sept. 1 to Thursday, Sept. 28, at the National Archives, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Free. (202) 501-5000 (Janet Hopf)