As the workers plant trees this week at the construction site in the southernmost part of Old Town, (S. Washington and Church), anticipation is building in Alexandria for the summer opening of the new Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery Memorial.
Last night, at the Beatley Library on Duke Street, Audrey Davis, Acting Director of the Alexandria Black Museum, and Francine Bromberg, Acting Director of Alexandria Archaeology, lectured on the history behind this area, and the making of the memorial. Their presentation was titled “Preserving Alexandria’s African American Heritage: The Development of Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial.” (C-SPAN 3 recorded)
General John P. Slough, the Union military governor during the Civil War, established the cemetery in 1864, the final resting place for African-American refugees who, starting in 1862, poured into this part of Northern Virginia from the Confederate South. Historians estimate as many as 20,000 arrived or passed through Alexandria.
As Eric Wills notes (Preservation Magazine, May/June 2011),
"By war's end, approximately half a million formerly enslaved people and other African American freedmen had sought protection behind Union lines. These "contraband," as they became known, usually lived in camps hastily erected almost anywhere the army was stationed. The large number of runaways who flocked to Union lines belies the outdated and racist notion that enslaved African Americans simply waited for emancipation by singing hymns and strumming banjos; rather, they seized almost every chance to pursue their freedom, often risking death, and in so doing, helped make slavery a central issue of the Civil War."
The de-humanizing term “contraband” is controversial, but Davis explained the word is generally accepted because of its historical usage. In 1861, three enslaved humans – Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory - escaped their owners and made their way to Fort Monroe, Virginia. Camp Commander, Major General Benjamin Butler, classified them as contraband of war, and thus refused to return them.
Alexandria archaeologists have identified over 1,700 remains. Many are women and children. (See “The Gladwin Record,” published by Wesley Pippenger)
The presentation included discussing the first inhabitants of this patch of land that once overlooked Hunting Creek, when it was as wide as the Capital Beltway is today. Native Americans called the heights home, where they made tools out of cobblestones. In fact, the oldest artifact ever found in the city was buried at this site, a tool that dates back to 10,000 B.C.
The graveyard was long neglected after the turn of the 19th Century. Davis and Bromberg’s impressive slide show included an article from The Washington Post that noted “graves are washing out of the cemetery.”
In 1955 a gas station was built on the site. By then, few remembered what lay underneath. In 1987, City Historian T. Michael Miller came across a reference to the cemetery while sifting through the Alexandria Gazette.
Several years later, Lillie Finklea and Louisa Massoud banded together an effort to have the site memorialized. The gas station was demolished (under the watchful eye of Alexandria Archaeology), and ground broken for the memorial.
The audience of about 50 was shown updated renderings and images. Sculptor Joanna Blake, who lives in Prince George’s County, has created a bas-relief work that will be a part of the memorial park.
A "Wall of Remembrance" will show the names of the souls that have been identified from the Gladwin Record. Interpretive markers will document the stories. Flat stones will mark the known burial sites. Alexandria resident Char Bah has identified descendants, whose names will also be incorporated. An iron fence made to look like the original picket fence will line the southern border, which lies above the Capital Beltway.
A big thank you goes out to Davis and Bromberg for their stellar presentation, and to all the folks who made this memorial park happen.
The event last night concluded with a quote from Harriet Jacobs. Author of "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," she traveled to Alexandria during the war to help the refugees. Jacobs was a one-person Red Cross, establishing a school, raising funds and awareness, and giving an inspiring speech at L’Ouverture Hospital, which was located near Duke Street.
I can’t remember the passage but I found something Jacobs wrote in 1864 (Letter from Teachers of the Freedmen, Harriet A. Jacobs and Louisa Jacobs, National Anti-Slavery Standard, 16 April 1864).
When we went round visiting the homes of these people, we found much to commend them for. Many of them showed marks of industry, neatness, and natural refinement. In others, chaos reigned supreme. There was nothing about them to indicate the presence of a wifely wife or a motherly mother. They bore abundant marks of the half-barbarous, miserable condition of Slavery, from which the inmates had lately come. It made me sad to see their shiftlessness and discomfort; but I was hopeful for the future. The consciousness of working for themselves, and of having a character to gain, will inspire them with energy and enterprise, and a higher civilization will gradually come.