The Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia will be a sacred site dedicated to honoring nearly 1,800 people of African descent who were buried in the cemetery during and immediately following the Civil War. The dignity, perseverance, and courage of Alexandria's freed men, women, and children will be memorialized through reclamation of the forgotten site, thereby protecting hundreds of graves which have survived. The Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery Memorial will be a solemn and reverent place, offering opportunities for reflection, commemoration, education, and the search for cultural identity.
The Memorial will educate visitors about the courageous struggles of the thousands of contrabands and freedmen who sought refuge in Alexandria, as well as the heroic role that the United States Colored Troops played in America's Civil War. Visitors will be able to trace the site's history from Native American settlement, to African American burial ground and beyond. The Memorial will protect the cemetery and stand as a reminder to generations that the struggle for freedom and the people who fought for it cannot, and will not, be forgotten again.
For more historical information, please review the publications and links found at the bottom of this page and in the "More Information" section of this web site.
The Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery was established in 1864 as a burial ground for African Americans who fled slavery, seeking a safe haven in Union-controlled Alexandria during the Civil War. Between 1,700 and 1,800 people were buried there over the five years that the federal government managed the cemetery. After 1869, the cemetery may have been used unofficially by families as a burial ground but was likely not maintained formally.
Over the years, the site has been compromised and hundreds of graves lost from a number of actions: the removal of soil from the cemetery for brick making; the adjacent development of two major highways; and the construction of a gas station and office building on the sacred site. Most people were unaware that a burial ground survived under the pavement on the commercial property until historical research began to reveal the presence of the cemetery in 1987.
Within the last twelve years, community interest and archaeological investigations have resulted in an appreciation for the cemetery and its long forgotten story. The site is the oldest known African American burial ground in Alexandria. The City of Alexandria acquired the property in 2007 in order to remove the buildings, reclaim the cemetery, and create a memorial. Several descendant families have been identified and actively participate in providing rich historical information.
A Place for All Times: A Story of Survival
Before the time of John Smith, this site was visited by Native Americans for thousands of years. It was a high, forested bluff overlooking Great Hunting Creek and the Potomac River. This location afforded access to marine and marsh resources and offered a good view over the broad river valleys. The nearby creek held bountiful quartz and quartzite cobbles suitable for the manufacturing of tools for hunting and processing animal skins. Situated on the northern side of Great Hunting Creek, the bluff had a southern exposure, making it an ideal location for a winter camp. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this area was marginal to the town of Alexandria. The port activities were centered upon the Potomac River shore, and the wide expanse of Hunting Creek created a natural boundary for travel south.
|Civil War Map showing the location of Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery site in green. National Archives.|
When the urban grid was expanded late in the 18th century, South Washington Street actually came to a dead-end just a few blocks south of this site. It was a narrow road with little commercial traffic, compared to a busy artery such as Duke Street. Alexandria was later incorporated into the District of Columbia, but when the first boundary stone was dedicated in 1791 at Jones Point, this place lay outside the nation’s new capital. Soon the Catholic cemetery was founded on the east side of the 1000 block of South Washington Street, just across the road from where the Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery was established approximately 60 years later.
Since this area was on the outskirts of town, people used it for activities that they wanted to keep away from homes and businesses. Just before the cemetery was laid out, an 1864 article in the Alexandria Gazette described, “the horrible nuisance created by allowing the night carts [wagons that held human waste from cleaning out privies] to be emptied on the hills near the Catholic burying ground. When the wind is from the South, half the town almost is subjected to the annoyance…” During the Civil War, a small pox hospital existed just south of Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery. After the Civil War, brick factories operated both south and north of the cemetery.
Completion of the George Washington Memorial Parkway in 1932 extended Washington Street and connected Alexandria with the south side of Hunting Creek. The cemetery became situated literally under and next to an important transportation artery. The site’s history was changed as this memorial gateway and garden parkway brought people to Mount Vernon. Increased auto travel after World War II gave commercial value to the cemetery land, resulting in the property’s development as a gas station and office building. Other mid-20th century projects, including the channelization of Hunting Creek for flood control and the construction of the Interstate 495/95 Beltway, resulted in the cemetery’s isolation from its original physical setting and in the desecration of many graves. For more than half a century, the cemetery site had only been perceived as the last gas station location before driving south out of Alexandria. Even with all these changes, hundreds of graves and thousands of Native American artifacts have survived into the 21st century. The Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial will minimize the damage inflicted by previous development and will restore meaning and value to the sacred site.
Beyond the Bonds of Slavery: African Americans Prior to the Civil War
African American life in Alexandria incorporated a wide spectrum of experiences. While more than 50 percent of blacks were still enslaved at the time of the Civil War, Alexandria had one of the highest percentages of free blacks among southern towns. Newlyfreed peoples and runaways were attracted to Alexandria for its port and urban environment, which afforded jobs, as well as greated personal freedom and anonymity than rural settings. Free neighborhoods started in the 1790s and expanded into the 1850s. Enslaved and free peoples interacted on the streets, in work places, in homes, and in churches. Yet, there were differences in the daily lives of people based upon varying degrees of bondage. At one end of the spectrum were free people who owned homes and erected churches. Some people were hired as skilled laborers, and their skills earned enough to pay for their own freedom, while others sought freedom by fleeing to the North. Some families remained enslaved for generations. The most disenfranchised blacks were those who were purchased by the notorious slave dealers on Duke Street for trade and resale on the auction blocks of New Orleans and Natchez.
Flight to Freedom: Struggle and Sanctuary in Civil War-Era Alexandria
When Virginia seceded in May, 1861, Union troops occupied Alexandria, took private land, and began to transform the seaport town for strategic purposes. Alexandria became a major base of operations and staging area for the Union Army. It also became a beacon of hope to freedom-seekers who took the war as an opportunity to escape from enslavement. Thousands of blacks, perhaps as many as 20,000, flocked to Alexandria from primarily Virginian locales. The journey from places like Richmond, Petersburg, Lynchburg, and Winchester was frightening and arduous. Often traveling by foot, the slaves found the trip through Confederate Virginia to be perilous. Emma Bynum recounted her experience fleeing slavery after learning how to write in a freedmen’s school: “I traveled 65 miles and we had 52 in our number, before, we crost, the rive,…we tought, we wld, be taken eny moment, the babys, cried, and we could whear, the sound of them, on the warter, we lay all night in the woods, and the next day, we traveled on and we, reached, Suffolk that night, and we, lost twenty, one, of the Number.” (American Antiquarian Society, n.d.).
|A Contraband School in Alexandria. New York Public Library.|
W.E.B. Dubois paints a vivid picture of the refugees wherever the Union troops advanced: “They came at night, when the flickering camp fires of the blue hosts shone like vast unsteady starts along the black horizon: old men, and thin, with gray and tufted hair, women with frightened eyes, dragging whimpering, hungrey children; men and girls, stalward and gaunt,--a horde of starving vagabonds, homeless, helpless, and pitiable in their dark distress.” (The Souls of Black Folks, 1903).
Arriving in Alexandria tired, hungry, and with few resources, the escaped slaves sought work, food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment, and education. Initially, U.S. officials were required to send these “fugitives” back to their owners, but by mid-1861 the government began to refer to freedom-seekers as “contraband of war.” This status as property provided a legal basis through which Union officers did not have to return refugees to their Confederate owners. However, their status did not afford them much relief from hunger, cold, or homelessness. Contrabands became known as “freedmen” during the later years of the war and into reconstruction.
Men and women worked in a variety of jobs supporting the Army, such as stevedores, carpenters, blacksmiths, laundresses, cooks, hospital attendants, wood cutters, personal servants, and gravediggers. General Herman Haupt, commander of the U.S. Military Railroad in Alexandria, wrote about those working in the Construction Corps: “If there ever should be recognition of their great services, the faithful contrabands will be justly entitled to their share; no other class of men would have exhibited so much patience and endurance under days and nights of continued and sleepless labor.”
Most freedmen lived crowded into abandoned buildings or temporary shanties with little heat or clothing and often suffered illnesses such as small pox, respiratory problems, and influenza. Many, particularly children, died. Shanties were built near one another in clusters, with names such as Grantville, Sumnerville, Petersburg, and Newtown. Post-war black neighborhoods grew from these cores, and at least one, “The Berg,” retains its identity. A record book survives with names of people who married and where the weddings took place.
Death with Dignity: Civilian and Soldier Cemeteries
It is thought that the freedmen who died in the first years of the war (1861-1863) were buried in Penny Hill, the town’s pauper‘s cemetery. The rising number of deaths, however, required the Army to establish a cemetery specifically for the refugees. This burial ground was established at South Washington and Church Streets early in 1864 by seizing land from a secessionist family who had left town. L’Ouverture Hospital was also constructed for the care of non-white civilians and soldiers about the same time. Although no map has been found to document where individuals were buried in the cemetery, a record book does survive that carefully provides the name, age, location, and date of death of more than 1,800 people. This record provides the only opportunity to know the age, sex, and, in some cases, reason for death, and next of kin of those who died from 1964 until 1869. More than 800 of the recorded deaths were children under the age of five.
|Alexandria, Virginia Death Records, 1863-1868 (The Gladwin Record). Alexandria Archaeology Museum.|
|Band of the 107th United States Colored Infantry at Fort Corcoran, Alexandria (Arlington) County, 1865. Library of Congress.|
The first 124 soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) who died at L’Ouverture Hospital were buried in a separate military section of the new freedmen’s cemetery. A civil rights protest by soldiers being treated at L’Ouverture Hospital occured on December 27, 1864, and secured the honor for USCT to be buried at the military cemetery, now Alexandria National Cemetery. This protest is believed to be the first documented in Alexandria. More than 400 men signed the petition that started: “We are not contrabands, but soldiers in the U.S. Army, and we have cheerfully left the comforts of home and entered into the field of conflict, fighting side by side with the white soldiers, to crush out this God insulting, Hell deserving rebellion.”
The soldiers in the freedmen’s cemetery were disinterred and reburied at the military cemetery in the early months of 1865. Their grave markers survive today at Alexandria National Cemetery, unlike the civilians’ in the freedmen’s cemetery, since the Army replaced all soldiers’ deteriorating, wooden headboards with gravestones after the Civil War. A great deal of information is known about the USCT men who were buried in Alexandria, including their rank, regiment, reasons for hospitalization, cause of death, service records, and, in a few cases, personal correspondence.
Conflicting Values: A Forgotten and Desecrated Place
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (The Freedmen’s Bureau) continued burying people in the cemetery until 1869 when the town was no longer under federal control. Since the cemetery had never been purchased by the government, it returned to private ownership. While individuals may have buried family members there informally, there is no record of continued use of the site. As time passed, the cemetery fell into neglect. The wooden markers would have deteriorated within a decade. A newspaper article in the Washington Post decried the sad state of the cemetery in 1894, caused by a brickyard removing soil from the edges of the site: “This digging, seconded by heavy rains, has resulted in unearthing many coffins and skeletons and leaving the outer graves in very bad condition. Some time ago, it is said, coffin ends protruded from the banks like cannon from the embrasures of some great fort.” Many freedmen families stayed in Alexandria, and at least one known family continued to visit the place to remember a relative into the mid-20th century.
The cemetery was conveyed to the Archdiocese of Richmond in 1917. The George Washington Memorial Parkway was constructed by 1932, and as a result, an unknown number of graves now lie under South Washington Street, the sidewalk between Church Street, and the urban deck over the Beltway. Change occurred more rapidly after World War II. After rezoning in 1946, the land was sold three times. Planning for a service station near the corner of South Washington and Church Streets started in 1955. By 1957, the city directory lists the station as Harper’s Flying A. Placement and replacement of gas tanks over the years resulted in destruction of all burials in one area. In the early 1960s, an office building was built on the western part of the site. Grading, cutting, and filling of the cemetery and adjacent properties, associated with both commercial uses and highway construction, undoubtedly destroyed graves and dramatically altered the original topography so that the site is no longer perceived as a bluff overlooking Hunting Creek and the Potomac River. Ironically, these mid-20th century buildings built on slabs and the surrounding asphalt protected the cemetery and Native American site better than other more intensive developments, such as high-rises, garden apartments and townhouses built nearby could have.
Rediscovery and Rededication: A Community Finds Meaning
The cemetery was rediscovered in 1987 through archival research by the City Historian, T. Michael Miller. Identification and transcription of the record book of deaths by Wesley Pippinger in 1995 led to greater interest. In 1997 Lillie Finklea and Louise Massoud formed the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery to protect the site and increase awareness. Over the last decade, public events, a historical marker, and an exhibit at the Alexandria Black History Museum have increased public appreciation of the place and of the people buried there. The City of Alexandria acquired the property in 2007 and carefully removed the gas station and office structures. The concrete slab and cinder block foundations were preserved in order to protect the graves that most likely lie underneath. A re-dedication ceremony was held in May 2007. Lighted luminaries decorated by local children were placed on the site
to honor each of the individuals buried in the cemetery.
Searching for Identity: Archaeological Findings
Archaeological studies in 1999, 2000, and 2004 provided tangible evidence of the cemetery’s survival after more than 125 years of neglect and destruction. 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. Extensive archaeological investigations by the City of Alexandria in 2007 produced a map of known graves and areas where graves probably still survive, as well as locations of an entrance, carriage path, and Native American artifacts. The archaeological map serves as a roadmap for design and construction so that all graves and Native American materials will be protected and the people buried there will be afforded dignity and respect in the years to come.
Of the approximately 1,800 graves once located in the cemetery, more than 600 have been identified through archaeological investigations. It is thought that at least half of the historic graves still survive. Hundreds remain in areas that have not been investigated but appear to have been protected (for example, under the two concrete slabs of the 20th century structures and below the asphalt and sidewalk of South Washington Street). No grave can be associated with a particular person, since a list of plot numbers has never
Historical records and archaeological information provide some understanding of the cemetery’s historic landscape. A wooden, picket fence surrounded the cemetery. It is thought that it was probably similar to the one originally built around Alexandria National Cemetery, though less ornate. The Army Quartermaster Corps supplied headboards at the time of the burial. Each headboard was probably white-washed and had the name of the deceased written in black lettering. A small shed was situated on the site for tools and biers. Graves were kept “ever at the ready” by a three-man team of gravediggers who were freedmen themselves.
The gravediggers prepared each grave individually, and the graves were placed very close to one another in orderly rows. Archaeological investigations discovered lines of more than 50 graves extending north/south across the width of the cemetery parallel to South Washington Street. More than 46 rows of graves extend east/west parallel to Church Street. (The historic cemetery would have been larger.) A 12-foot gap between rows of graves along South Washington Street is believed to have been the entrance to the cemetery, and a carriage path extended westerly into the cemetery.
The deceased were placed in coffins which could be supplied by the family or purchased from the Army. Standard coffin sizes were produced at 2½, 4, 5, and 6-foot lengths for "destitute contrabands." Fees were charged to others, $2 to $5 depending upon size. The length of the grave shaft, or in some cases the coffin, was found through the archaeological work. While it is not possible to determine the gender of the deceased, children’s graves are distinguishable by their small size. Analysis of the death records shows that more than half of those buried in the cemetery were under the age of ten.
|Southern Boundary excavations. Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery, 2007. Alexandria Archaeology Museum.|
When the City archaeologists encountered areas with disturbance, the upper parts of burials were often missing. Coffins were sometimes found just inches under the asphalt. The surveyed coffins have been generally hexagonal in shape, which is indicative of the traditional “shouldered” style common in late 18th and early 19th centuries. Coffin screws and tacks were used to fasten the lid to the coffin box, and decorative hinges allowed the top of the coffin to be opened for viewing of the deceased. A fragment of a coffin handle also indicates that the individual may have been carried by mourners to the grave. The book of deaths chronicles that chaplains officiated at some of the civilian services, while soldiers were buried with military honors. Although no grave goods were discovered, one set of burials in the western part of the cemetery did have a covering of oyster shells. Many other pieces of ceramic and glass were discovered during the investigation, but it is not known if they were associated with the graves. Two Civil War-era bullets were also found.
Further evidence of the desecration of some graves could be seen as coffin wood, coffin tacks, and, in some cases, human remains were found out of place, and some graves were completely graded away. White porcelain shirt buttons were also found. All artifacts associated with graves and human remains were recorded and left in place.
|Clovis Point found on site, dating back 13,000 years, 2007. Alexandria Archaeology Museum.|
Thousands of Native American artifacts made of quartz and quartzite have been discovered while investigating the cemetery. The artifacts represent thousands of years of stone toolmaking. The oldest artifact ever found in Alexandria, a 13,000 year-old Clovis spear point, was recovered here in 2007. A buried portion of the western slope of the cemetery continues to be a significant Native American archaeological site.
Materials from the 20th century use of the site were retained. The concrete and cinder block slabs of the gas station and office building remain, as well as a brick retaining wall and stairs leading to the latter. They give tangible testimony to the period when the cemetery was disrespected and damaged. Archaeological resources present the most complex and important opportunities and constraints in reclaiming the cemetery and creating the memorial. Graves must not be disturbed during the design and construction phases of the project and must be respected in the future. The Native American area of the site must also be protected. After completion of the archaeological work, at least two feet of fill dirt was placed on top of the cemetery and Native American site. There should be no excavations deeper than the modern fill soil that overlays the site.
- Names of people buried at the Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery.
- "A Cemetery For Contrabands and Freedmen: Alexandria, Virginia."
- Personal Accounts
- Wilbur, Julia. Compilation of Personal Letters. 5 Nov. 1862 – 8 Feb. 1865. Alexandria Archaeology Museum., Alexandria, Virginia.
- Quotes From "The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers." Volume Two, Part Seven - August 1862 - October 1863, Alexandria: The Heart of the Struggle, Part Eight - October 1863 - April 1865, Alexandria: Building Freedom. Jean Fagin Yellin, Editor, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, Copyright 2008.
- 1,593 civilians and 118 soldiers (United States Colored Troops) were buried in the cemetery
- More than 100 people buried in the cemetery died at the Contraband Barracks (1200 block of Prince Street), 24 died in the Price, Birch, and Co. slave jail (formerly Franklin and Armfield) at 1315 Duke Street (now Freedom House) and 333 died at L'Ouveture Hospital
- Of the civilians buried, 3% were stillborn and 62% were under 18 years old
- 6% were listed as "destitute" in The Gladwin Record
- 534 graves were identified through archaeological investigation