America’s only standing slave pen sits at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center holds America’s only standing slave pen, a place that held enslaved people until the slaveholder was ready to sell them.

“There are a lot of powerful objects in this institution — particularly our slave pen,” social justice curator Trudy Gaba said. “You can’t find this anywhere else.”

Once you make your way to the second floor of the Freedom Center, you can’t miss it. America’s only standing slave pen in pristine condition. It’s not a cabin, it was essentially a warehouse for enslaved people before they were sold 750 miles down the river to Natchez, Miss.

“Cincinnati and the Freedom Center are uniquely positioned to be able to tell this history,” Gaba said.

A wealthy Maysville resident named John W. Anderson built this slave pen in 1832. He’d buy enslaved people for $200-300 and could sell them for more than $1,000. In today’s money, his role within the domestic slave trade would net Anderson more than $1 million a year.

He’d pile about 30 to 50 people inside. Women, girls and boys under 12 years old would stay on the first floor. Boys over the age of 12 and men were sent to the 2nd floor, and they’d be shackled. This is because at the time it was thought men and boys were more likely to fight back or run.

This group could stay in this slave pen for days, weeks or months until Anderson was ready to sell them.

“What you’re seeing here are stories of resilience, you’re seeing stories of resistance,” said curator Stephanie Lampkin, Ph.D.

Anderson died in 1834, ironically while chasing down someone who escaped from that very slave pen. His estate went into probate court since his wife or daughters couldn’t inherit the property.

Once one of his daughters got married, her husband was able to gain control of the land. The family eventually got out of the slave trade, turning the slave pen into a tobacco barn. That’s one reason historians believe it’s in such good condition, tobacco is a natural bug-repellant.

After the Andersons, the land had many owners who made their tweaks to the estate.

“The reason it’s in the condition it is in because there was actually a barn built around it and so you probably wouldn’t have known in passing that this structure even existed,” Lampkin said.

In 1998, the land’s new owner Raymond Evers was ready to knock the structure down, until he noticed the spikes on the top floor. The Freedom Center’s senior curator at the time, the late Carl Westmoreland, rushed over to investigate.

It had been long rumored there was a slave pen in Maysville, but someone distinctly remembered mention of the “Anderson slave jail” in court records. Westmoreland found those court documents, confirming the building Evers almost knocked down was in fact, the Anderson slave pen. Evers gifted the building to the museum.

“Bringing the slave pen into our building was such a feat and an effort in itself,” Lampkin said.

A group of expert preservationists undertook the herculean task of taking it apart and building it back up on the banks of the borderland, which took thousands of people from slavery to freedom.

“It’s not just the physical structures themselves, but it’s the people as well who are attached to these histories and these stories,” Gaba said.

The museum found the names of the last known people held in Anderson’s makeshift jail in the court records of his inventory at his time of death. Those names have been carved into a piece of wood just outside the structure, allowing the museum to center the story around their experience. Because of them, the docents at the museum can share the whole story, no matter how hard it is to hear.

“Our goal here is really to reveal that truth of American history,” said Lampkin. “While it is a heavy story to tell, it may be a difficult story to tell, it’s so important.”