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Former Slave Pen Becomes Home For Seniors

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Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille, left, and Vice Mayor Kerry Donley share a laugh with the Rev. Earl Lee, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, during the unveiling of a new historical marker at Beasley Square.
Michael Pope
Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille, left, and Vice Mayor Kerry Donley share a laugh with the Rev. Earl Lee, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, during the unveiling of a new historical marker at Beasley Square.

Low-income seniors now have a new place to live in Alexandria: an affordable housing complex opened by a historically African-American church and located on a block that was once a slave pen.

A few months ago, Barbara Bradley was facing homelessness. She had little money and nowhere to turn. Then she found Beasley Square, a new affordable housing complex for low-income seniors. Without it, she'd probably be living on the streets, she says.

Walk inside Beasley Square and you're confronted with what seems like an upscale apartment building. There's little evidence this entire block of Duke Street was once a slave pen where thousands of African-Americans were held in bondage. Bradley, who is white, says she's fascinated by the history of her new house.

"I mean, they went through a lot of stuff, you know," she says. "My great-grandma, she was Andrew Jackson's second cousin. And I guess she learned a lot about slavery through that system."

Bradley's neighbor across the hall is 62-year-old Theresa Wilson, who is black. She says it's fitting that a site that once imprisoned slaves is now owned by an African-American church.

"I don't feel bad about it," says Wilson. "I just feel that they finally got some sense to come together, you know, and make something for the elderly people now."

Outside the building, on the corner of Duke and West Streets, is a new historical marker telling the rest of the story. After the Civil War ended, the facility became a hospital for blacks. There, in the mess hall of the hospital, a congregation began meeting that eventually developed into Shiloh Baptist Church, which built Beasley Square.

"This is the most significant historic marker for African-American history to be put up yet in town," says city archeologist Pam Cressey.

Now, that history is ready for the next chapter; a story of low-income seniors living out their golden years without worrying about finding themselves out on the street.

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