Finding Descendants from Alexandria's Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery

Three years ago this month, Alexandria's Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial held a dedication cemetery. More than 1,750 black women, men, and children were buried there from 1864 to 1869. In the intervening years, it lay unused, then forgotten, then paved over, until archaeological and historical research rediscovered the past.

"Bringing Them Home"

While the graves are unmarked, the buried do not lie in total obscurity, amazingly enough. A record of the names, ages, and other identifying features survived, known as the Gladwin Record, because Rev. Albert Gladwin ("Superintendent of Contrabands," 1862-1865, with whom Julia Wilbur worked and frequently tussled) began the listing.

In the 1990s, genealogist Wesley Pippenger found the record and transcribed the names; the original has been restored and is at the Library of Virginia. They include people like William Franklin, aged 4 months, and Emma Harris, aged 8 months, as well as Richard Gray, aged 75 years, and Millie Bailey, aged 80. 

  Gladwin Record, original at Library of Virginia

Gladwin Record, original at Library of Virginia

The progression toward recognition continued when genealogist Char McCargo Bah began a years-long search to find descendants of those buried there.

At a lecture entitled "Bringing Them Home" at the Alexandria Black History Museum, she called her process "reverse genealogy." That is, genealogists, whether amateur or professional, usually start with the present and work backwards. She is trying to find her way from the past to present-day people.

McCargo Bah had (has, as the search continues) a huge challenge, with endless possibilities for exploration. The sources she has consulted include censuses, newspapers, church records, death and marriage certificates, military and records from African American civic organizations. As word got out about the project, people with potential family connections contacted her, but mostly, it required a lot of patience and diligence. She would go line-by-line through records in the Alexandria Library and Library of Virginia. Just as importantly, she spent many hours visiting and listening to people.

She is now writing a book about the project, which I am greatly looking forward to reading. As she spoke, a slide carousel showed modern-day (or fairly recent) family portraits, with the names of the ancestors interred along with their own names. In many cases, families are related to two or more people. Many live in Alexandria, but others are spread out across the country.

The Cemetery in Its Heyday

As obscure as it became, the cemetery was well known and frequently visited in the mid-1860s. It took over from Penny Hill, the public cemetery, which became so overcrowded that a gravedigger told Julia Wilbur he was told to place several bodies together in the same hole. (Churches had their own burial grounds and a military cemetery was also created in 1863.)

Both Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs frequently visited the new cemetery. On April 12, 1864, for example, Julia wrote:

...went in the Ambulance to the new Contraband Burying Ground. 65 graves there already. It is as good a spot as could be obtained but very wet now.

The Memorial Today

As you go south on Washington Street leaving Alexandria and headed for Mount Vernon, you will see the Freedmen's and Contraband Memorial on your right. The spots where remains were found are marked, but were not further disturbed or disinterred. 

A rededication cemetery took place in 2007, followed by further restoration and construction of public sculptures. On large panels are engraved the names of all people known to be buried there.

The September 2014 ceremony brought together more than 1,000 descendants, a living testament to Char McCargo Bah's hard work.

  Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, Present-Day

Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, Present-Day