Those escaping from slavery 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, is reflected in design of the memorial park.
Watch a short video on
Comcast Newsmakers (July 31, 2014), as Elena Russo speaks with Francine Bromberg, Acting Director of Alexandria Archaeology, about the historical research that revealed the presence of a forgotten cemetery.
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
1946: Parcel rezoned for commercial use; Diocese sells property with restrictions banning construction of automobile service station
1948: Last known year that the cemetery location is marked on a City map
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
Archaeological remote sensing reveals presence of graves in vicinity of gas pumps
Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery formed
Archaeological excavations on VDOT property
Virginia State Marker erected
Preliminary archaeological excavations on gas station and office building lots
2007: Demolition of gas station and office building
2007: Rededication Ceremony
Archaeological excavations to determine burial locations
2008: City conducts
Memorial Design Competition. Winner is C.J. Howard of Alexandria
2014: Dedication of the memorial -- September 6
2015: The National Park Service includes the cemetery in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom