Alexandria Black History Museum

The mission of the Black History Museum is to enrich the lives of Alexandria's residents and visitors, to foster tolerance and understanding among all cultures and to stimulate appreciation of the diversity of the African American experience.

Page updated on Jan 7, 2018 at 4:19 PM

The Museum Properties
Alexandria Black History Museum
Watson Reading Room
African American Heritage Park
Before the Spirits are Swept Away

The institutional complex is composed of the Museum, the Watson Reading Room, and the Alexandria African American Heritage Park. 

Alexandria Black History Museum is devoted to exhibiting local and regional history, incorporates the Robert H. Robinson Library as one of two exhibition galleries. The Robert H. Robinson Library was originally constructed in 1940 following a sit-in at the segregated Alexandria Library.

Watson Reading Room, established in 1995, provides an environment for learning about the diversity of African American cultural traditions.

African American Heritage Park is a nine-acre green space and wetland, the Park offers a place for celebration, commemoration and quiet reflection.

Virtual Tour

Visit the Black History Museum, the African American Heritage Park and the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial on Google 360 virtual tours.

Current Exhibition 

Before the Spirits are Swept Away: African American Historic Site Paintings by Sherry Z. Sanabria 

I am drawn to the walls and spaces… [of buildings]… by the magic of light, the organization of architectural elements, and the perception that these spaces are filled with and colored by the spiritual remnants of the lives lived in them.  – Sherry Z. Sanabria (1938-2014)

On November 22, the Alexandria Black History Museum opens Before the Spirits are Swept Away: African American Historic Site Paintings By Sherry Zvares Sanabria. This exhibition, featuring 20 of Sherry Sanabria’s African American historic site paintings, is made possible by the Sanabria family, who generously donated 23 of her paintings to the Alexandria Black History Museum. Sherry, who had a studio at the Torpedo Factory Arts Center,  passed away in 2014.  Her family has made it their mission to find homes for her paintings where they will be appreciated and preserved. This incredible donation permits museum staff to use the paintings to explore slavery, interpretation, and preservation of African American sites in Virginia. 

These paintings are part of Sanabria’s “Sites of Conscience” series, which has as its focus African American heritage, prisons, concentration camps, and mental hospitals. The Sites of Conscience series takes viewers to places of horror, places of pain and suffering, places we want to forget, but never should.

Robert Sanabria, Sherry’s husband, feels this series “… demonstrates the widespread practice of bondage in the American South and the determination of the enslaved to survive and maintain their connection with their creator. It is especially fortuitous to have these works together where they will be valued and available for the appreciation of generations to come….”

The Staff of the Alexandria Black History Museum are honored to be custodians of this beautiful series of paintings.

Purchase an exhibit catalog from The Alexandria Shop.


Past Exhibitions:

Securing the Blessings of Liberty

Phase 1 of Securing the Blessings of Liberty is removed to prepare for Phase 2

On November 3, 2016,  the first phase of the Alexandria Black History Museum’s three-part exhibition series, Securing the Blessings of Liberty, was removed from the Museum’s Robert Robinson Gallery. Scheduled to run from June 2006 to June 2009, the exhibition was extended until the fall of 2016. The  Alexandria Black History Museum will open Before the Spirits are Swept Away: African American Historic Site Paintings by Sherry Z. Sanabria on November 22, to continue the community dialogue on Alexandria’s African American history. The exhibit will be accompanied by a wide array of public programs, including lectures, musical programs and foodways events. While this exhibition is on view, staff will begin the research process for phase 2 of Securing the Blessings of Liberty, highlighting the Civil War and Reconstruction eras in Alexandria’s history. To learn more about this exhibit planning process, return to our website for updates.

More Past Exhibitions

Learn about past exhibitions from the museum's Parker-Gray Gallery. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. Poster Contest 

“Serving the People, Serving America, Serving Alexandria” is the theme for the 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr. Poster Contest program and student exhibition. The posters will be exhibited in the Vola Lawson Lobby at City Hall from January 15 to February 28, 2018, with a recognition program held in City Hall on January 15.

Mercy Street

Mercy Street, the six-episode PBS drama that premieried on Sunday, January 17, 2016, is inspired by true stories of Civil War Alexandria, Virginia.The Office of Historic Alexandria joined Extraordinary Alexandria in providing visitor experiences that uncover the real people behind the characters on the show, the realities of Civil War medicine, changing roles for women, and the breakthrough experience of enslaved African Americans claiming their freedom. 

Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery Memorial

The Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial was officially opened on September 6, 2014. Learn about the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial  history and archaeology of the site, view the extensive news coverage of the commemoration ceremonies, and watch short videos about the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial on Comcast Newsmakers , of interviews with Char McCargo Bah, Audrey Davis and Francine Bromberg.

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.  

The Fort: A Post-Civil War African American Community

Visit Fort Ward Park to see new historic signage highlighting the post-Civil War African American community known as The Fort. A copy of The Fort Heritage Trail Brochure  is available online.

This community is the focus of an effort by the Office of Historic Alexandria to study and preserve the post-Civil War historic resources of Fort Ward Park. Archaeological excavations in the park, historical research, and oral histories highlight our growing knowledge of this community. Learn about the Stakeholder Advisory Group , and about archaeological and historical research, including reports on excavations, transcriptions of oral history interviews with former residents.

News and Information 

  • News coverage of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial dedication.
  • Watch short videos about the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial on Comcast Newsmakers:  
    • Yolanda Vazquez sits down with Char McCargo Bah, professional genealogist, to talk about the celebration. (July 22, 2014)
    • Elena Russo speaks with Francine Bromberg, Acting Director of Alexandria Archaeology, about the historical research that revealed the presence of a forgotten cemetery. (July 31, 2014)
    • Elena Russo speaks with Audrey Davis, Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, about the upcoming Dedication of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial. (August 5, 2014)
  • The Washingtonian Magazine picked the Alexandria Black History Museum as one of its "Hidden Gems" for their February 2014 issue.
  • Comcast Newsmakers: Appreciating Diversity: Ellen Russo speaks with Audrey Davis, the Acting Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, about appreciating diversity and the cultural traditions of our nation. Watch the short video, created November 2013.
  • WTOP and NBC report: Film "Twelve Years a Slave" has ties to the Washington, D.C. area. Northrup was sold into slavery in 1841 through the Washington, D.C. slave dealer James H. Birch. In 1858, after Northrup was again a free man, Birch was co-owner of the Alexandria Slave Pen, now Freedom House Museum. Read the Associated Press article on WTOP, November 5, 2013, and watch the NBC News video from November 6, 2013, and see the film at local theaters.
  • Watch a video clip on The Alexandria Black History Museum, from WETA’s Around Town (2007). 
  • National Trust Visits Museum -- As part of its efforts to document Contraband heritage sites, the National Trust for Historic Preservation  visited Alexandria and interviewed Audrey Davis, Assistant Director and Curator of the Alexandria Black History Museum, and local historian Lillian Patterson. Check out the Preservation Nation blog and video now and learn about Alexandria's Contraband history!
  • The book African Americans in Alexandria, Virginia: Beacons of Light in the Twentieth Century has been nominated by the Library of Virginia (LVA) for its 17th Annual Library of Virginia LIterary Awards in the nonfiction category. Winners will be announced at LVA's Gala on October 18, 2014.  The book is also one of the selections for the Virginia Festival of Books. Authors Audrey Davis and Char McCargo Bah will join other authors on a panel on Community History at the Festival on March 21, 2014 at noon, in Charlottesville, VA. The book is available for sale at the Museum, at the Historic Alexandria Museum Shop located at The Lyceum, and online from  The Alexandria Shop. All proceeds will go to the Museum to assist in their programming.
  • Walking Tour Brochure: Download A Remarkable Journey: A Guide to Alexandria’s African American History. 


Alexandria Black History Museum 
902 Wythe Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314 
Phone: 703.746.4356   
Fax: 703.706.3999  

Museum and Office Hours

Museum Hours 
Tuesday to Saturday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 
Sunday and Monday: Closed 
Closed: New Year's Day, Easter, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday

Office Hours 
Monday to Friday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and by appointment

Museum Archives 
Open by appointment only. To schedule an appointment, contact the museum’s curators at 703.746.4356 or by  email.

American Alliance of Museums logo 

American Alliance of Museums
Accredited Museum