"Underneath the roof there was a crazy loft all round, where slaves, if so disposed, might sleep at night, or in inclement weather seek shelter from the storm. It was like a farmer's barnyard in most respects, safe it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there." Solomon Northrup (1853)
Williams Slave Pen
An infamous slave pen, owned by W.H. Williams, once stood near the corner of 7th Street and Independence Avenue (formerly B Street), Southwest. A seemingly innocuous yellow house, set back from the street in a grove of trees, concealed from view a brick-walled yard, in which enslaved persons were held, awaiting transport to southern markets. It was one of the most lucrative of the slave pens operating in Washington, DC in the years before the Civil War. Williams had purchased an existing slave pen because of its advantageous location on 7th Street, with direct access to the District's waterfront shipping piers on the Potomac River.
In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free Black man and professional musician, was drugged, kidnapped, and sold as a slave while visiting Washington, DC to attend the funeral of President William Henry Harrison. Eventually, Northup regained his freedom and documented the experience in his book, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative
of Solomon Northup (1853). The book includes a firsthand account of the Williams Slave Pen, where Northup was imprisoned:
"The yard extended rearward from the house about thirty feet. In one part of the wall there was a strongly ironed door, opening into a narrow, covered passage, leading along one side of the house into the street. The doom of the colored man, upon who the door leading out of that narrow passage closed, was sealed. The top of the wall supported one end of a roof, which ascended inwards forming a kind of open shed. Underneath the roof there was a crazy loft all round, where slaves, if so disposed, might sleep at night, or in inclement weather seek shelter from the storm. It was like a farmer's barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there.
The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington, its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. 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."