"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 The large number of runaways who flocked to Union lines belies the outdated and racist notion that enslaved African Americans simply waited for emancipation by singing hymns and strumming banjos; rather, they seized almost every chance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 Forgotten, The Contraband of America and the Road to Freedom, by Eric Wills, Preservation, May/June 2011
“It takes a village.”
I thought about that phrase this past Wednesday night as I sat in the back of the auditorium at the Nannie J. Lee Recreation Center in Alexandria. It’s attributed to an African proverb, a thought that dovetails perfectly with the special program co-hosted by the Office of Historic Alexandria and Arena Stage. Titled “Journey to be Free: Returning Home to Alexandria,” the event recognized and honored descendants whose ancestors are buried at the Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery at 1001 S. Washington Street.
The family members, numbering in the dozens, came from as short a distance as a few blocks away, and as far away as California. The All Souls Jubilee Singers and an ensemble of musicians entertained them with a selection of songs. Historian C.R. Gibbs prefaced each one with appropriate historical information about the struggles of enslaved African Americans.
Following the formal presentation, a panel answered questions from the audience, which included the general public and city officials. On the stage were Char McCargo Bah, Descendant Genealogist; Audrey Davis, Acting Director, Alexandria Black History Museum; Francine Bromberg, Acting City Archaeologist; Pamela Cressey, Former City Archaeologist; and Lenard Starks, Choir Director, All Souls Jubilee Singers.
This story of the contrabands is a remarkable one that began four centuries ago when slaves from Africa were treated like cattle and shipped like so much cargo to the Chesapeake Bay region. In some ways, their saga will end this September when the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial Park opens to the public. They’ve rested there at the edge of the city for 150 years, but it’s not always been peaceful.
A highway marker at the cemetery summarizes part of the story.
Federal authorities established a cemetery here for newly freed African Americans during the Civil War… About 1,700 freed people, including infants and black Union soldiers, were interred here before the last recorded burial in January 1869… Most of the deceased had resided in what was known as Old Town and in nearby rural settlements.
In her answer to one of the questions, Cressey touched on how a couple of discoveries made by researchers, and subsequent efforts by individuals and groups in the city, led to the creation of the memorial park.
As I sat there and listened, I kept nodding my head. Alexandria is not the only place something extraordinary like this could take place, but the city certainly serves as a model that could inspire folks in other places to find and preserve their past. And it was a village of caring people here in Alexandria and elsewhere that helped bring this story to a final conclusion.
Let’s take a brief look at some of the difference makers in this story of love and hard work that will shine a spotlight on an important piece of history that could have easily remained lost forever.
Pioneers in the Preservation Movement
The preservation movement in the United States has been traced back to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. In 1858, the Virginia legislature voted not to purchase George Washington’s crumbling estate. Ann Pamela Cunningham (1816-1875), who had ties to Alexandria, stepped in and created the organization. With the help of other like-minded individuals, enough money was raised to purchase and save Mount Vernon. Other historically minded towns and cities paid attention and implemented their own preservation organizations.
Support on a Federal Level
Founded in Washington in 1949, the National Trust for Historic Preservation was established through an Act of Congress. The Trust first acquired Woodlawn Plantation & Pope-Leighey House, located in the Alexandria part of Fairfax County and built on land George Washington gave to Nelly Custis (Martha’s granddaughter) and Lawrence Lewis (George’s nephew) in 1799. In 1966, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act, which provided funding for the Trust. In 1996, funding became private.
Residents Fight Back
In 1960, city officials in Alexandria announced a proposed Urban Renewal Plan for the downtown area. Residents mobilized to fight back against those who wanted to destroy as many as 20 blocks of historic homes and buildings in Old Town (They even wanted to tear down the Lyceum!).
Others helped start organizations such as the Historic Alexandria Foundation (easement plaques) and the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission. In the 1940s, the Alexandria Association had paved the way by advocating for protection measures. A major milestone came in 1946 when Alexandria was designated as an historic district.
In the early 70s, an eight-lane highway was proposed that would have cut through the historically black neighborhood of Parker-Gray. Scores of 19th century homes would have been leveled. Alexandria resident Eudora N. Lyles (1918-2000) organized the Inner City Civic Association. The highway proposal was ultimately defeated.
Leaders with a Vision
When Cressey arrived in Alexandria in the mid 70s, programs to preserve historical assets were either non-existent or just sketches on a chalkboard.
As the City’s Archaeologist, Cressey helped forge Alexandria Archaeology into a vital component of the preservation system. The city has been recognized as a nationwide model of preservation.
In the 1970s, when they needed a permanent space, preferably close to the heart of Old Town, Alexandria Archaeology was able to move into the Torpedo Factory at the corner of King and Union Streets. Marian Van Landingham, who served as the first Director of the Art League and continues to paint in her studio, number 321, made that move possible. She convinced the Mayor to not tear down the old factory building. Long before it became a paradigm of success, Van Landingham made the case for adaptive reuse, a place transformed where scores of artists could work while visitors and residents watched and learned.
Some scoffed at the idea, but they were wrong. Since its Grand Opening in 1983, the Torpedo Factory Arts Center has been one of the city’s crown jewels (and a great place to escape winter’s cold and summer’s heat!).
Councilwoman “Del” Pepper was in the audience on Wednesday night and received the appropriate recognition and applause. She served as a symbol of the role government can play. Preservationists need support and funding, and elected officials can do their part to help. The wise politician in Alexandria knows that an ethos permeates life here, a strong desire to protect historic assets in both the historic district of Old Town, as well as Parker-Gray.
Developers and Real Estate Companies
Developers can and have done their part in Alexandria by cooperating with the City on all matters affecting historical assets. With so much land being redeveloped in Parker-Gray and the blocks surrounding the boundaries of its historic district, such teamwork is important.
Cressey noted it was T. Michael Miller who uncovered the existence of the Freedman’s Cemetery in 1987. He came across an 1894 article in The Washington Post reported that graves were washing out of the cemetery.
For many years, Miller served as the City’s Historian. From his office at the Lloyd House, he poured through rolls of microfilm and stacks of vertical files and wrote articles for The Fireside Sentinel, a monthly newsletter published by the Alexandria Library. His accidental discovery of the cemetery sparked interest in the long-forgotten patch of land overlooking the Capitol Beltway and covered by a gas station and small offices.
In 1995, Wesley Pippenger, a research historian, came across a small booklet in a Richmond library that turned out to be the “Gladwin Record,” a list of those buried at the Cemetery. Pippenger reorganized the list and published “Alexandria, Virginia Death Records, 1863-1868 (The Gladwin Record) and 1869-1896.” From these sources, we know March 7, 1864 was the first day contraband were buried at the cemetery.
Through her decades-long work as a researcher, writer and speaker, Char McCargo Bah has made her name synonymous with African American genealogy in Alexandria. In 2008, the City asked her to help identify and locate the descendants of the cemetery. Bah, who grew up in Parker-Gray, found the families of more than 100 of the deceased buried at the cemetery. Bronze tablets at the new memorial will include these family names.
Every Friday, readers of The Alexandria Times make sure they don’t miss the “Out of the Attic” series. Researched and written by the Office of Historic Alexandria, this column provides glimpses into the people and places in the city’s rich past.
On the web, the City publishes a similar series, “This Week in Historic Alexandria.” Sometimes all it takes is one person to read one story to be inspired to get involved in preservation.
Whether you call it the Special Collections or the Local History section, it doesn’t matter. Plunging into the history of Alexandria would be next to impossible without the help of George Combs and the gang at the Kate Waller Barrett Library Branch on Queen Street in Old Town. The collections there are invaluable and the staff’s own insights into Alexandria’s history can save researchers hours of time.
Alexandria researchers are also blessed to have the resources of the libraries of Fairfax County, Arlington, the District, Maryland, and if all else fails, you can hop on the Metro and visit the Library of Congress.
In 1997, Lillie Finklea and Louise Massoud read an article in The Washington Post. They learned the construction company working on the Wilson Bridge Project wanted to use the cemetery site to stage some of their equipment. The two fought back and founded the citizens group “The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery.” They advocated for a memorial, and provided the leadership that led to the state of Virginia erecting a Roadside Memorial Marker on the corner. In 2007, the City purchased the land, and tore down the gas station and small office buildings. Alexandria Archaeology then conducted investigations and identified the graves. Because the construction impacted the cemetery, Federal funds could be used to help finance the memorial site.
All of the city’s museums are important places, but for learning about African American history, two are most essential. The Alexandria Black History Museum presents both a permanent exhibit and revolving one. Under the direction of Acting Director Audrey Davis, this museum also hosts events such as the recent book launch for Nancy Noyes Silcox, author of “Samuel Wilbert Tucker, The Story of a Civil Rights Trailblazer and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In.”
The museum hosted the descendants this past week in the temporary exhibit room where interpretive panels tell the story of Tucker and the five Alexandrians who made history 75 years ago.
The Washington D.C. area has many great places where the history of our country grabs a hold of you and won’t let go. I submit none exceed the power of the Freedom House at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria.
Alexandria was a place of refuge for freed enslaved humans, and is a place that cherishes its black history. There’s no escaping, however, the fact that during the antebellum era, traders in the seaport city earned wealth beyond compare through selling and shipping slaves to the Deep South. Less than a mile from where the cemetery lies, they operated out of a town house on Duke Street and sold as many as a thousand enslaved humans each year.
In 2000, the Urban League of Northern Virginia purchased the property and turned it into a museum. Alexandria has several ghost tours, but nowhere is the haunting more poignant than this former slave pen where so many families were torn apart, and so many lives forever changed.
One of the panelists reminded the descendants they can do their part by researching family histories and recording oral histories. Sharing their findings on the web, even if it is simply a mass email or a text only blog, can go a long way. One avenue for the oral history is the Library of Congress’s Story Corps.
Some in the audience might have thought it a bit odd to see this special event held at a recreation center tucked away blocks away from the pulse of the city and not located in either of the historic districts.
This venue was, in fact, very appropriate. The Recreation Center is named for Nannie J. Lee (1934-1977), a community activist who fought back against injustices during the Jim Crow Era in Alexandria. Although the Rec Center is not located in Parker-Gray, the historically black neighborhood once known as “Uptown,” it still holds connections to the black community. Some residents living nearby recall a time when this part of Alexandria was known as the “South Side.” The Rec Center also lies a few blocks from the footprint of “The Bottoms” or “The Dip,” the first free black neighborhoods in Alexandria that was settled around 1800.
The Power of the Written Word
Not a lot has been written about the contraband. One particularly well-written piece, written by Eric Wills, can be found in the May/June 2011 issue of Preservation Magazine.
Wednesday night’s event was the culmination of a lot of hard work by both paid employees (Here’s looking at you Ruth Reeder!) and volunteers with the Friends of Alexandria Archaeology. Alexandria Archaeology is blessed with a team of selfless people who donate their time and talent to the cause of preservation in Alexandria.
The Next Generation
Alexandria needs young people who will one day carry the preservation torch. Signing on with the team will bring you many opportunities to serve and learn about not only local and regional history, but national history as well. A simple phone call, email or visit to Alexandria Archaeology (third floor of the Torpedo Factory) is all it takes to get started.
The Grand Opening
The Grand Opening of the Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Park is scheduled for September 6. It will be a great moment for the descendants. It will also be a great moment for the folks behind the scene, caring people who are part of what it takes to preserve Alexandria’s important and precious history.