Top 4 Mercy Street-Inspired Experiences for African American History in Alexandria

The creators of PBS’ Mercy Street have been dedicated to illuminating the complexities of the Civil War through the characters and showing that everyone, regardless of gender, class, race or geographic alliances, experienced life during the war differently. In this Mercy Street Monday blog post, we’ll be focusing specifically on the empowering stories of African American characters in the series by rounding up our top 4 Mercy Street inspired experiences in Alexandria on the subject.

Lucky for us, Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History museum, serves as an official historical consultant and blogger for PBS. You can visit Alexandria to uncover rare photos and exhibits that tell the triumphant stories of our city’s African American history—the same stories that inspired the series.

“I am thankful there is a beginning. I am full of hope for the future. A power mightier than man is guiding this revolution; and though justice moves slowly, it will come at last.”

Harriet Jacobs, freedwoman, author, educator and dedicated aid-worker in Alexandria during the Civil War. Quote as seen on plaque at Freedmen Cemetery

1. Alexandria Black History Museum



Left is Audrey Davis, Right is Mercy Street actress L. Scott Caldwell (who plays Belinda Gibson) during a visit to the Alexandria Black History Museum. Image Credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria.

Mercy Street actor L. Scott Caldwell (also known as Rose on the hit TV show Lost) visited Alexandria’s Black History Museum and met with museum director Audrey Davis to research her role on the show. Ms. Caldwell plays Belinda, a former slave and current servant of the Green family who owned the Mansion House Hospital. Museum Director Audrey Davis was a historical consultant on the show, due to her expertise on the unique juxtaposition of enslaved and free African Americans co-existing during the Civil War. Today, visitors can explore the museum’s exhibits detailing the courageous journey from Civil War to Civil Rights.

View the new exhibit “Before the Spirits Are Swept Away: African American Historic Site Paintings by Sherry Z. Sanabria” through May 29, 2017, featuring over 20 paintings by artist Sherry Z. Sanabria (1937-2014) who worked in the DC metro area since 1975. The paintings in this series honor the lives of African Americans who survived slavery and years of racial injustice, but whose presence defined the American landscape.

2. Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial


Mercy Street Actresses Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Background) and Hannah James (with rose) at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Image Credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria

Between 1864 and 1869, the Contrabands and Freedmens Cemetery served as the burial place for about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Union-occupied Alexandria to escape from bondage, but did not live long in freedom. Visitors can experience a memorial park that commemorates the free African-American men, women and children interred on its grounds. In the picture above, the cast of Mercy Street visits the cemetery and is moved by panels that are structured similarly to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Based on the Gladwyn Record, the name and age of each freedmen buried in the cemetery is poignantly etched into bronze panels. Even if you were to read every history book in the world, nothing can resonate like the power of stepping back and seeing the scope of all the names together.

The Memorial also features artist Mario Chiodo’s sculpture “The Path of Thorns and Roses,” an allegorical depiction of the struggle for freedom. The Memorial’s bas-reliefs depicting the flight to freedom were done by local sculptor Joanna Blake, and tell vivid stories of what life was like for the freedmen.

3. Follow a Courageous Journey Self-Guided Tour 


The Edmonson Sisters statue is part of the self-guided tour. Image Credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Alexandria

Follow a Courageous Journey or make your own tour using our extensive guide to Alexandria’s African American history. Visitors can experience the lives and stories of African Americans whose contributions to Alexandria and American history still resonate. For fans of PBS’ Mercy Street, we suggest checking out the section of 19th century sites to explore history related to the series. Points of interest include the Franklin & Armfield Slave Office & Pen, the Bruin “Negro Jail”, the Edmonson Sisters statue, and the L’Ouverture General Hospital & Barracks. Learn more by reading one of our previous posts about African American history in Alexandria. You can also take the abbreviated driving tour of 10 African American historic sites in Alexandria.

4. Freedom House Museum

R Kennedy Freedom House Alexandria for Mercy Street Blog

Original bars and brick walls at the Freedom House Museum. R. Kennedy for Visit Alexandria

Mercy Street isn’t the first time Alexandria’s African American history has been featured in film or television. In the stunning true story told in the major motion picture 12 Years a Slave, free Black man Solomon Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he subsequently spends an agonizing twelve years in captivity. James Burch (Birch), the DC-based slave dealer responsible for selling the real Northup into slavery, would go on to become one of the last owners of one of the largest slave trading companies in the country,  Franklin and Armfield in Alexandria, from 1859 to 1861.

Today, the Franklin and Armfield building is home to the Freedom House Museum and the Northern Virginia Urban League. Here, visitors stand witness to the powerful stories of the enslaved in the same space where they were once held. The original bars, bricked walls and artifacts are tangible reminders of this dark time in our nation’s history. First-person slave narratives told through video and exhibits include the story of Solomon Northup. The Freedom House slave pen is remarkably similar to that which is featured in the movie, giving visitors a palpable sense of what slave pens were like during that era.

Self-guided tours available Monday to Friday between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. / Guided tours and weekend tours available by appointment with at least two weeks notice

Know Before You Go: Brief Background

PBS history consultant Audrey Davis helped ensure the complexities of African American experiences were historically authentic. You can read Audrey’s blog here , and be sure to say hello when you visit her at the Alexandria Black History Museum. Before you visit the sites, here is a brief explanation of the background for the three main African American characters, as explained by Audrey Davis.

Alexandria African American History Mercy Street

Join the Conversation!

Keep watching the series and check back to ExtraAlex each week so you don’t miss any of our Mercy Street Monday blog posts, which will accompany but never spoil the series. For more information on Mercy Street inspired experiences in Alexandria, click here.

We love hearing from you—tell us what you learned during your Mercy Street Inspired visit to ALX and share your pics using #MercyStreetPBS and #ExtraordinaryALX

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Header image courtesy of Antony Platt/PBS

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