Retired City Archaeologist Fran Bromberg describes the rediscovery of the Contraband and Freedmen’s Cemetery on South Washington Street in Alexandria as one of the highlights of her career. During a recent talk at the site, she described how history, archaeology, and community activism came together to rescue a sacred place that sat underneath the asphalt of a gas station.
A brief summary of Fran’s talk, supplemented with some other reading and research.
Civil War Beginnings
The cemetery was created in 1864 to inter African Americans who had escaped slavery by coming into Union-occupied Alexandria. Existing burial grounds could not accommodate the numbers of deaths caused by decades of neglected health coupled with poor nutrition, close quarters, and other aggravators.
Julia Wilbur, in her role as a relief worker, often visited the cemeteries. On February 5, 1864, she “talked with a grave digger [who] says he was told to put 3 or 4 into one grave.” The new cemetery opened the following month.
Albert Gladwin, Alexandria’s “Superintendent of Contrabands.,” confiscated the land at the southern edge of town, across from a Catholic cemetery and on property that belonged to Francis Smith, an attorney of Robert E. Lee. The Alexandria Gazette reported on March 4, “A grave yard for the burial of ‘contrabands’ who may die in this place has been laid off near the Catholic cemetery.” In addition to a more regular method of burial (a hearse, a wooden casket, a headboard), Gladwin began a record of the people buried there—names, ages, and, when known, cause of death.
The Freedmen’s Bureau kept the cemetery going until 1869. Fran showed copies of that agency’s documentation about maintenance and burials (which proved important in the eventual restoration). But in keeping with the broader story of the thwarted efforts of the bureau, funding and attention ceased. A mention of a headstone appeared in the Alexandria Gazette in 1892, but “Negro cemetery” appeared on a map as late as 1948. But the cemetery fell into disrepair.
The Smiths eventually reclaimed the property after the War but sold it to the Catholic diocese. The diocese then sold it stipulating that it could not be used for a gas station (Fran was not sure why this particular ban was included, when other commercial development could occur). In 1955, development coincided with an expansion of the city to include what is now Alexandria’s West End. Many streets were re-named for Confederate heroes, including Beauregard (prominent general) and Taney (Supreme Court justice who presided over the Dred Scott case). The city authorities tried to hold on to school segregation and other Jim Crow actions. More immediate to this subject, the city authorities lifted the ban and approved construction of a gas station. The construction of the Beltway and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge further made the site inhospitable and further degraded..
In the 1980s, the city historian, T. Michael Miller, came upon mention of the cemetery. In the mid-1990s, Wes Pippenger, a historian and genealogist, discovered the Gladwin record of deaths at the Library of Virginia. Then the plan to build a new Wilson bridge led to assessments of the area that, in turn, led to the archaeology work that positively located hundreds of graves.
Ground-penetrating radar identified where burials may have taken place. When confirmed, the land was left intact so as not to disturb the remains. Casket handles and other artifacts were photographed but also left in the ground. These places are identified with stone markers in the earth or on the sidewalks (since they are under the current-day sidewalk on Washington Street and, Fran noted, probably under the road itself although no excavation took place there).
Fran said the original plan was to keep the gas station intact but to dedicate the portion of the land owned by the government. However, a woman living in the neighborhood named Lillian Finklea began to organize and, over time, a group called Friends of Freedmen Cemetery convinced the city to purchase the land and reconsecrate it as a cemetery. This, of course, over-compresses the effort. How to honor the people buried? How not to disturb the site further? The fence around the cemetery reflects the design of a white picket fence that was probably once used. A sculpture and bas-reliefs provide inspiration and a place for reflection.
Concurrently,genealogist Char McCargo Bah began trying to connect current generations with ancestor who may have been buried at the cemetery. She has found connections to more than 150 of the interred who, in turn, connect to thousands of descendants.
As moving as any cemetery can be, the Gladwin Record makes the cemetery even more astounding. More than half of the 1,700 burials are of children. We know their names, often where they lived and their causes of death. We can see mothers and daughters, elderly men, many more.
The Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria will celebrate the 5th anniversary of its dedication in September. Descendants will gather at the site on South Washington Street. They will honor more than 1,700 men, women, and children buried between 1864 and 1869, almost all of whom had escaped slavery and fled into Alexandria during the Civil War.
It is amazing a ceremony can even happen.