At the corner of S. Washington and Church Street in the southern part of Old Town, construction continues on the “Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery and Memorial Park.” Work also continues for researchers and historians, who are bringing to life the unique and important story of these refugees who escaped their bondage during the Civil War by fleeing to Fort Monroe, Union camps and Alexandria.
One such researcher is Dr. Chandra Manning, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, resident of Alexandria, and the author of the award-winning book, "What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War."
Manning spoke last night at the Alexandria Black History Museum in Parker-Gray, the historically black neighborhood in Old Town. Her lecture was titled, “Refugees from Slavery: Contrabands in Washington, DC. and Northern Virginia.” A panel discussion on “research and remembrance” followed.
Manning began by noting Alexandria was at the center of the contraband story. Pinpointing exact numbers of refugees to the city is difficult to know, but during Q&A, Timothy Dennee said perhaps as many as 8,000 came north to Alexandria. Even more passed through on their way to Washington. During the panel discussion, Dr. Pamela Cressey noted that of the 1,711 persons buried at the Alexandria Freedman’s Cemetery, most were women and young children.
Manning said it easy to romanticize the saga of the contraband, but their life in camps was deleterious to their health. Having arrived tired and weary, the refugees found primitive shelter, little food, and scant medical care. Many died of disease.
Some of the refugees did find work in Alexandria at the train station, docks, stores, and some were spies and guides. 90 women worked in hospitals. Heroes such as Harriet Jacobs and Julie Wilbur provided care, food and supplies.
Manning made the overall point that these contrabands helped influence Federal policy by humanizing their experiences with Union soldiers. After the war, some of these Northern veterans were voted into office, and remembered their interactions with these African Americans. As politicians, they helped pass the 14th Amendment in 1868, which struck down the Supreme Court’s ruling eleven years earlier, (Dred Scott), that said black people could not be citizens.
After the main presentation and a short break, a panel of distinguished local historians spoke on the subject. They included Dr. Channing, Dr. Cressey, Dr. Audrey Davis (Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum), Dr. Thomas Williams (President of the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington), Dennee, architectural historian and author of many articles on Alexandria history, and Matthew Penrod, park ranger at the Arlington Cemetery.
They each spoke about their research. One of them noted that Alexandria researcher Char Bah found over 100 descendant families, some of whom were unaware that their ancestors were contraband refugees.
The others spoke about resources for those interested in the subject. The Gladwin Record is available on line and at the Alexandria Queen Street Library Special Collections Section (hours limited - check website or call).
The Contraband Memorial website has some writings and will add even more this summer. Section 27 at Arlington Cemetery has contraband history.
The Alexandria Contraband Memorial is scheduled to open this spring, and will feature bronze panels that will display the names of those buried there. Their journey has been a long one, and soon these freedom seekers will finally rest peacefully, and with the dignity they deserve.