New park incorporates historic black cemetery
July 13, 1995
By Pamela Cressey
Why would any archaeologist dig Alexandria, Virginia, when greater material and intellectual treasures are buried in Jamestown, Paris, the Holy Lands and Africa? Let me tell you a little story that is now complete after 10 years. It will illustrate why I, as well as other city archaeology staff and thousands of volunteers, have found greater worth in Alexandria’s community heritage than all the fabulous finds around the globe.
I was surprised in 1985 when the person on the telephone asked if I could do a quick study of property along Holland Lane. The caller asked, “Can we put up a homeless shelter? I hear there might be a cemetery.” A whirlwind two-day investigation unearthed the fact that this long-forgotten land preserved African-American history beneath its brambles and silt.
Walter Sanford had written a little to the City in 1976 asking for the mowing of the cemetery on Holland lane and reporting three headstones. Sanford has long been involved with the national Cemetery across Hooff’s Run from Holland Lane. Our reconnaissance of the property in 1985 located only one headstone, with the name Abraham Hunter, who died in 1891 at the age of 37.
Research at the Lloyd House, the history repository of the Alexandria Library, documented that the Baptist Cemetery Association, represented by Thomas Mann, purchased a one-care parcel on John Street (now Holland Lane) in 1885. This area was at that time in Fairfax County, but was called “West End” by Alexandrians. The cemetery association was composed of members of the Silver Leaf (Colored) Society of Alexandria, Va.
A decision was made not to build a shelter, but a vision was formed in 1985 by Harry Burke and other members of the Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage. Over the years this vision took shape through the dedication of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Memorial to Honor Black Leaders and the generosity of Norfolk Southern Corp. Jean Taylor Federico, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, and Eugene Thompson, former director of the Alexandria Black History Resource Center, assisted in the creation of this dream. Jerome Meadows designed the magnificent bronze sculptures. Archaeologists and landscape designers worked to ensure that the modern park would complement the historic cemetery.
On June 17, the Alexandria African American Heritage Park was dedicated as a memorial to African-American contributions to Alexandria’s history. The park incorporates the Baptist Cemetery and eight additional acres between Holland Lane and Hooff’s Run just south of Duke Street. It is a natural and meditative place where you can feel the spirit of the past and gain strength of the future.
So why dig Alexandria’s archaeology? Because Alexandrians value historic places and things as precious community resources. History is used to enhance daily living. This is an aspect of the community’s character – to seek balance between old and new, blending graciousness and vitality.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.
Caption: Jerome Meadows’ evocative sculpture, “Trees of Remembrance,” the centerpiece of the new Alexandria African American Heritage Park. Photo/courtesy Alexandria Archaeology