Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial
South Washington and Church Streets
|Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery graves were marked with wooden headboards like these at Alexandria National Cemetery, 1876 (Photo, Library of Congress).
Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery served as the burial place for about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Alexandria to escape from bondage during the Civil War. They found a safe haven in Alexandria because of the Union occupation, but their large numbers resulted in a refuge crisis. While many found employment, other contrabands, as the freedmen were officially known, were destitute after fleeing slavery, and arrived hungry and in ill health. Many were housed in barracks, and disease was rampant. In 1864, after hundreds had perished, the Superintendent of Contrabands ordered that a property on the southern edge of town, across from the Catholic cemetery, be confiscated for use as a cemetery.
In the first year, burials included those of black soldiers, but African American troops recuperating in Alexandria’s hospitals demanded that blacks be given the honor of burial in the Soldiers’ Cemetery, now Alexandria National Cemetery. The soldiers’ graves were disinterred and moved to the military cemetery in January 1865. The last burial in Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery took place in January 1869.
The cemetery fell into disrepair, and a brickyard and railroad cutting encroached on its edges. The cemetery appeared on maps until 1939, but by then there would have been little remaining above-ground evidence of the burials. In 1955, a gas station was built on the property, followed by an office building.
More than 30 years later, historical research revealed the presence of the long-forgotten cemetery, and plans for rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge along the cemetery’s southern edge focused attention on it. Archaeologists used ground penetrating radar to confirm the presence of graves on the site, and the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery was formed to advocate for preservation of the site as a memorial. Additional archaeological excavations identified the location of graves to minimize impact of park construction. The layout of the cemetery, revealed by the archaeological work, will be reflected in design of the memorial park.
Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, Historical Overview. This 24-page overview includes a brief history, quick reference guide, timeline, and a summary of the controversy surrounding the burial of black soldiers at Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery.
Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery makes available a history of the cemetery and a wealth of primary source data relating to Alexandria's African American community of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, including the Gladwin Records, a record of the deaths and burials of Alexandria's freed people.
Oral Histories Interviews with Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery descendants.
Additional historical materials were provided for those submitting designs for the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial Design Competition, including excerpts from letters written by Julia Wilbur, describing conditions among the contrabands population in Alexandria.
1861: Alexandria occupied by Federal troops at beginning of Civil War
1862: Contrabands (freed slaves) migrate to Alexandria in large numbers, causing a refugee crisis
1864: First burials take place on land seized from pro-confederate owner
1865: Black veterans are moved from Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery to Alexandria National Cemetery
1865: Civil War ends
1869: Military rule ends in Alexandria
1869: Last recorded burial takes place in January; Parcel is reclaimed by former owner
1894: Washington Post reports that graves are washing out of the cemetery; Alexandria Gazette denies that, but reports that Alexandria Brick Company and Manassas Gap railroad encroached on edges of cemetery
1917: Property transferred to Catholic Diocese of Richmond
1939: Last year that the “Negro Cemetery” is shown on Alexandria tax map
1946: Parcel rezoned for commercial use; Diocese sells property with restrictions banning construction of automobile service station
1955: Gas station built on property, followed by office building
1961: Construction of Interstate 95 may have impacted edge of cemetery
1987: City historian T. Michael Miller rediscovers 1894 Alexandria Gazette reference to the cemetery
1995: Wesley Pippenger publishes the Gladwin Records, a list of burials in the cemetery
1996: Archaeological remote sensing reveals presence of graves in vicinity of gas pumps
1997: Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery formed
1999: Archaeological excavations on VDOT property
2000: Virginia State Marker erected
2004: Preliminary archaeological excavations on gas station and office building lots
2007: Demolition of gas station and office building
2007: Rededication Ceremony
2007: Archaeological excavations to determine burial locations
2008: City conducts Memorial Design Competition. Winner is C.J. Howard of Alexandria
2014: The tentative date for the dedication of the Memorial will be announced as soon as a guaranteed completion date can be determined. Please visit this page often for timely updates.
Archaeology at Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery
Archaeological site map
Archaeological studies conducted between 1996 and 2007 provided tangible evidence of the cemetery's survival after more than 125 years of neglect and destruction. Of the approximately 1,800 graves once located in the cemetery, more than 500 were identified through archaeological investigations. The goals of the archaeological investigations focused on the identification of burial locations to ensure protection during development, future maintenance of the site, and the recovery of information about the cemetery for use in the memorial design process.
In addition to important information about the cemetery itself, archaeologists discovered that, in the 19th century, the cemetery was dug through an important prehistoric site. While most of the tools are from the Archaic period, Alexandria's earliest artifact, a Paleoindian Clovis Point, was found here.
Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery
|State Highway Marker, dedicated in 2000
The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery was founded in 1997 for the purposes of preserving, commemorating and researching a little known, Civil War-era, African American burying ground in Old Town Alexandria. The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery website honors Alexandria’s freed people. It is intended as a resource to present their stories and to connect them to their descendants and to Alexandria residents of today.
The Friends’ initial efforts concentrated on memorial ceremonies to honor and raise public awareness of Alexandria’s freed people. In 2000, the Friends secured a Virginia state highway marker for the site. With the impending construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the Friends collaborated with the City of Alexandria and Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project consultants to plan an appropriate memorial on the site. In 2007 the cemetery parcel returned to public ownership, a mid-twentieth-century gas station and office building were razed, and an archaeological excavation examined the layout of the cemetery. In 2008, the City of Alexandria held a design competition for the creation of a public commemorative park, and the cemetery was rededicated in a beautiful and moving ceremony. The dream and mission of the Friends is coming to fruition.
Rededication Ceremony, 2007
|Alexandria schoolchildren and community groups helped to decorate luminaries representing each of the burials.
A rededication ceremony on May 12, 2007 honored the forgotten burial place of approximately 1,800 freedmen, who escaped the bonds of slavery, sought refuge in Alexandria, and contributed to the prosperity and cultural heritage of the City. The ceremony featured speeches, African drummers, a poem by Alexandria’s Poet Laureate, and the lighting of luminaries representing each of the burials. The Alexandria City Council issued a Proclamation declaring a Week of Remembrance.
Schoolchildren, scouts, community groups, and participants in bag-decorating workshops at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum and the Alexandria Black History Museum, adorned the luminary bags with heartfelt artwork, words and poetry. Each bag was labeled with the name, sex and age of death of one of the deceased Freedmen. You can view the 1,906 luminary bags produced by each class, group or workshop.
The event was the culmination of twenty years of research and community activism. From the Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery, to Alexandria residents, City of Alexandria staff, and schoolchildren who participated in luminary decorating, this was truly a community effort. In 2011, the City of Alexandria will again honor these men, women and children, with the formal dedication of the Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial.
- Alexandria Gazette, May 17, 2007
- Alexandria Times, May 17, 2007
- Richmond Times Dispatch, May 14, 2007
- Washington Post May 13, 2007
- Preservation Online May 9, 2007
- WJLA-TV (Channel 7), May 12, 2007
- WUSA-TV (Channel 9), May 15, 2007
Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial
|Design Competition, first place winner, C.J. Howard of Alexandria. Elements of the winning design will be used in the memorial.
The City of Alexandria is developing the cemetery site into Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial. The memorial park, tentatively scheduled to open in March 2014, will honor the memory of the Freedmen, the hardships they faced, and their contributions to the City.
The project is being completed under the stewardship of the City of Alexandria and the Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery, with funding from the City, the Federal Highway Administration and Virginia Department of Transportation through the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project www.wilsonbridge.com, and a grant from Save America's Treasures, a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic preservation.
The City of Alexandria conducted a design competition in 2008. The City sought design submissions from architects, landscape architects, artists, students, and other interested individuals, and received a broad range of submissions from individuals and firms from over twenty countries around the world. Alexandria architect C.J. Howard won first place honors in the design competition. In addition to receiving a $10,000 first place prize, Howard’s winning design will be used as the framework for a detailed site design. The results of archaeological excavations are being used to insure that no burials are disturbed during development, and are contributing to public interpretation in the memorial.
Statue for Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Delivered
Memorial Construction Update: July 25, 2013
The memorial sculpture for the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery was delivered to the site on Thursday, July 25, 2013 and the installation was started. California based artist Mario Chiodo was selected after a national search to design and create the sculpture. Titled “The Path of Thorns and Roses,” the larger-than-life figurative sculpture captures what the artist envisioned the emotions of the Contrabands and Freedmen would have been at various stages of their Journey. Because of problems with the quarried granite which is to clad the outer walls of the memorial (i.e., the various granite slabs did not match and will need to be replaced), the dedication ceremony has been rescheduled for 2014. A tentative date of March 8, 2014 has been chosen. The Memorial should be finished by then, and that date also coincides with the 150th anniversary of the founding of Freedmen’s Cemetery.
Markers are being installed at each of the graves located during the archaeological survey.