Freedman’s Cemetery offers questions and answers
March 27, 1997
By Pamela Cressey
Community archaeology is never dull and boring! In towns like Alexandria, dirt, documents, and memories reveal layers of meaning about our past. Just when you think you know something, another piece of evidence shifts the groundwork upon which your thinking is based. The pursuit of the past is constantly perplexing and tantalizing. What really did happen and where? Archaeologists and historians want to find all the fragments and make sense out of the seemingly contradictory information. When you are following the trail, you just don’t want to let it go. This "history high" is the most exciting for me when the facts do not mesh, and I must adjust my thinking, seek new facts, and go beyond commonly held myths and assumptions. It is even better when many people are interested and are working toward the study and preservation of a site with great meaning to the community.
This has certainly been the case for many of us pulling together a variety of sources to understand the history of the Freedmen’s Cemetery at South Washington and Church streets. Citizen interest was ignited by the Federal Highway Administration’s release in January of an archaeological report, which indicates a strong possibility that graves still exist on the site. The federal agency does not intend to disturb the cemetery, but many questions have been raised. How will the area be affected by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Improvement Project? Why is the cemetery now a gas station? Where are the boundaries? How many people were buried here, and who are they?
Part of community archaeology is planning for the future. We need to know where sites may be located in order to manage them as cultural resources. To this end, the City archaeologist and volunteers have been amassing and mapping data since 1979. We use the information when reviewing development plans submitted to the City and for federal undertakings, as well as for selecting excavation sites and developing public tours. We continue to update our Archaeology Atlas maps with new information brought to light by researchers.
A series of fortunate discoveries over the last 10 years brought Freedmen’s Cemetery to our attention and expanded our knowledge. Due to the diligence of several people, we have been able to provide "early warning " information to the Highway Administration and assist in the site’s protection. In 1987, T. Michael Miller, research historian in the Office of Historic Alexandria, uncovered information in the Alexandria Gazette that the military established a Freedman’s Cemetery during its occupation of the city during the Civil War. He also found another article dated 30 years later in 1894. He was able to place the African American cemetery across from St. Mary’s burial ground. A few years later, we saw a random page of the 1939 City tax parcel map delineating a "colored cemetery" at South Washington and Church streets. We plotted the site on our African American Atlas page so that it was documented within the Historic Preservation chapter of the Alexandria City Master Plan. We thought we knew where the cemetery was located.
Wes Pippinger’s research brought another dimension to the site. He included data in the second and third volumes of his Tombstone Inscription series and discovered a daily log kept by Reverend Albert Gladwin, supervisor of contraband (slaves seeking freedom in U.S. military camps.) Pippinger transcribed Gladwin’s information and published an alphabetical list of names, and where available, causes and places of death. The Gladwin Record includes 1,879 entries between 1863 and 1868. Only a few people from the number were soldiers; death claimed both male and female and cut across all ages from stillborn infants to Polly at age 100. The list is a poignant statement of the living conditions which blacks seeking freedom had to endure.
We then thought we knew how many people were buried in Freedmen’s Cemetery and who they were. Pulling together and analyzing this information has resulted in some surprises, which I will report in subsequent columns. Anyone interested in conducting research about the African American soldiers and other people who may be in Freedmen’s Cemetery, please call me at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, 703-838-4399.