Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial
South Washington and Church Streets
Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery served as the burial place for about 1,700 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.
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
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: Dedication of the memorial -- September 6
|State Highway Marker, dedicated in 2000
Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery
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.
|Alexandria schoolchildren and community groups helped to decorate luminaries representing each of the burials.
Rededication Ceremony, 2007
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.
Other Commemorative Events
- Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial Celebration Events, Sept. 3-7
Watch short videos on Comcast Newsmakers:
"The Journey to be Free: Descendants Returning Home to Alexandria." If you missed the special March 5 performance, we hope to repeat this event during the Dedication week.
Freedmen's Cemetery Ornament: The ornament commemorates the 150th anniversary of the cemetery’s first burial and the memorial’s official opening in September, 2014.The ornament depicts Mario Chiodo’s passionate statue, The Path of Thorns and Roses, framed by the memorial’s arched entranceway. As the centerpiece of the memorial, the statue depicts the allegoric figures of Oppression, Struggle, Sacrifice, Loss, Compassion, and Hope. Available for $18.00 from Alexandria's museum shops and online from The Alexandria Shop.
Design Competition, first place winner, C.J. Howard of Alexandria. Elements of the winning design are being used in the memorial.
Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial
The City of Alexandria is developing the cemetery site into Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial. The memorial park, tentatively scheduled to open in September 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.
Follow the progress on our Memorial Construction Update and Photo Gallery.