Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial
Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery Memorial
1001 S. Washington Street
(at the corner of Church Street)
Alexandria, Virginia, 22314
1001 S. Washington Street
(at the corner of Church Street)
Alexandria, Virginia, 22314
Hours of Operation
Open dawn to dusk
Open dawn to dusk
Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery Memorial
Alexandria Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery served as the burial place for about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Alexandria to escape from bondage during the Civil War. A Memorial opened in 2014 on the site of the cemetery, to honor the memory of the Freedmen, the hardships they faced, and their contributions to the City.
The Memorial is part of the African American History Division. This division, formed in 2023, will ensure the continued inclusion of Black History in City museums and public programming, as well as advancing the City’s goal of building a welcoming community through equity and inclusion.
Are you a descendant of a person buried at Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery? Please submit the Descendants Survey to help us better assist you with documenting your family's story.
The video below features a photographic tour of the Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, looking at the deeper meaning of the features in the memorial built in 2014.
Visit the Memorial on a Google 360 Virtual Tour, created in 2017 for VisitAlexandria. The Memorial features artist Mario Chiodo's sculpture "The Path of Thorns and Roses."
This video explores the history of the founding of the Freedmen Cemetery in 1864 and the neglect and resurrection the cemetery experienced over the subsequent centuries.
Those escaping from slavery found a safe haven in Alexandria because of the Union occupation, but their large numbers resulted in a refugee 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, is reflected in design of the memorial park.
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 -- May 12
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
2015: The National Park Service includes the cemetery in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom
2019: Fifth Anniversary celebration -- September 13-15
2021: The National Park Service includes the cemetery in the African American Civil Rights Network
Archaeology at the Cemetery
Archaeological studies conducted between 1996 and 2007 provided tangible evidence of the cemetery's survival after more than 125 years of neglect and destruction. Of the approximately 1,800 graves once located in the cemetery, more than 500 were identified through archaeological investigations.
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.
The Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial opened in 2014 on the site of the cemetery, to honor the memory of the Freedmen, the hardships they faced, and their contributions to the City.
The Memorial features artist Mario Chiodo's sculpture "The Path of Thorns and Roses," an allegorical depiction of the struggle for freedom; the Memorial's bas-reliefs depicting the flight to freedom were done by local sculptor Joanna Blake. AECOM (formerly EDAW) and Howard + Revis Design comprised the design team for the Memorial.
The project was 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 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 was used as the framework for a detailed site design. The results of archaeological excavations were used to insure that no burials were disturbed during development, and contribute to public interpretation in the memorial.
Network to Freedom
In 2015, the National Park Service (NPS) approved the Office of Historic Alexandria's application for the Alexandria Freedmen’s Cemetery to be included in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. This designation recognizes important historical sites in the United States that make a significant contribution to the understanding of the Underground Railroad in American history and that meet NPS requirements for inclusion as an individual site.
As part of this recognition, NPS recognized OHA’s ongoing commitment to quality and high standards and “to be stewards of all that the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom embraces.” The designation is also subject to periodic review by NPS to ensure that the Freedmen’s Cemetery site continues to be appropriately maintained and interpreted well into the future.
African American Civil Rights Network
On July 24, 2021, over 100 people came together to celebrate the addition of the Alexandria’s Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial to the National Park Service African American Civil Rights Network. The site’s inclusion on the network is a testament to the Black soldiers of the USCT who successfully petitioned in 1864 to have their fellow soldiers reburied with full military honors in the Soldier’s Cemetery, now Alexandria National Cemetery. The memorial recognizes this first known civil rights protest in the city, as well as the self-emancipated African American men, women, and children who fled to Alexandria during the Civil War. It was nominated by the Alexandria Archaeological Commission, with support from the City of Alexandria City Council and the Office of Historic Alexandria.
Watch the dedication of Alexandria's Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial as part of the National Park Service African American Civil Rights Network in July 2021.
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.
Ceremonies at the Memorial
Rededication Ceremony, 2007
May 12, 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.
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.
Dedication of the Memorial, 2014
Journey to be Free
September 6, 2014
The City of Alexandria officially dedicated the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial on Saturday, September 6, at 10 a.m. The memorial park honors the memory of the Alexandria’s Freedmen, the hardships they faced, and their contributions to the City. The September 6 dedication capped three days of events featuring Alexandria’s Civil War and African American history.
During the Civil War, the Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery was the burial place for approximately 1,800 African Americans who fled to Alexandria to escape bondage. The cemetery fell into disrepair and nearly faded from memory before being restored and rededicated in 2007. Now, in the sesquicentennial of both the Cemetery and the Civil War, a new memorial honors this site and those who were laid to rest there. Their descendants, many of whom will be coming to Alexandria for the Dedication, now live in nearly all 50 states.
5th Anniversary Celebration, 2019
September 13-15, 2019
This moving and educational weekend event included a Friday evening opening address with local Contraband historian Char McCargo Bah. Other events included: a morning wreath-laying at the site, a luncheon to honor descendant families with a keynote address by National Park Service Superintendent of Fort Monroe National Monument, Terry E. Brown, a curated bus tour of Alexandria’s African American heritage sites, and an evening candlelight vigil at the memorial.
6th Anniversary Celebration, 2020
September 6, 2020
September 6, 2020 is the 6th anniversary of the Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery Memorial dedication. Once on the edge of town and “lost” to time, now it tells the story of the thousands of refugees that came to Alexandria in search of freedom during the Civil War. Many arrived hungry and in ill health. Of the about 1,800 burials - more than half were of children. Take time to pause and remember the lives of those this cemetery remembers.
Primary Sources & Publication
Native Americans at the Site
African-American Soldiers in the Civil War
- Convalescents of L’Ouverture Hospital and Its Branches and Soldiers of the U.S. Army. Letter to Major Edwin Bentley. 27 Dec. 1864. Number 1 in the Freedmen’s Series of Documents of Alexandria’s Freed People, produced by the Alexandria Black History Resource Center and Alexandria Archaeology, divisions of the City of Alexandria’s Office of Historic Alexandria. Copyright 1997. Research and transcription by Timothy Dennee and Lillie Finklea. Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery.
Volunteers for Freedom: Black Civil War Soldiers in Alexandria National Cemetery, Part I. Miller, Edward A. Jr., Historic Alexandria Quarterly Fall 1998.
Volunteers for Freedom: Black Civil War Soldiers in Alexandria National Cemetery, Part II. Miller, Edward A. Jr., Historic Alexandria Quarterly Winter 1998.
- The USCT and Alexandria National Cemetery. Upon hearing that African American soldiers were going to be buried at the new Freedmen’s Cemetery and not the Soldier’s Cemetery (now Alexandria National Cemetery) 443 soldiers at L’Ouverture hospital signed a petition to be buried at the Soldier's Cemetery.
- Wills, Eric. "The Forgotten: The Contraband of America and the Road to Freedom" Preservation (National Trust for Historic Preservation), May/June 2011.
- Harriet Jacobs, Selected Writings and Correspondence. Life Among the Contrabands. The Liberator, Boston, MA, 5 September 5, 1862. Yale University.
- “1866 Record of Deaths and Burials (The Gladwin Record).” The Library of Virginia, Archives and Records. 1863-1868., Alexandria, Virginia.
- Cressey, Pamela. “Historic Design and Character of Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery.” 5 Sep. 2007. updated 4 January 2008. Alexandria Archaeology Museum., Alexandria, Virginia.
- Cressey, Pamela. “Historic References to the Name of the Cemetery.” 7 Nov. 2007. updated 4 January 2008. Alexandria Archaeology Museum., Alexandria, Virginia.
Post-Civil War Destruction and Desecration
- “Alexandria Affairs: Uncanny Sight in a Graveyard.” Washington Post. 29 Mar. 1892., Washington.
- Miller, T. Michael. “A Time for Remembrance—The Contraband Cemetery.” Date unknown. Office of Historic Alexandria., Alexandria, Virginia.
- Miller, T. Michael. “Historical News Flash: Freedmen and Contraband Burial Ground Identified in Alexandria, Virginia.” 11 Jan. 1991. Alexandria Library, Alexandria, Virginia.
- “Proposed New Motel at Jones Point Bridge Site.” Washington Post. 18 Oct. 1953., Washington.
Descendants Oral History Interviews
Joyce Paige Abney
Joyce Paige Anderson Abney is a fifth-generation Alexandrian, descended from Armistead Webster. Mrs. Abney discusses growing up in segregated Alexandria, including schools and swimming pools.
Lucian Johnson's ancestors are buried in Alexandria's Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery. A life-long resident of Alexandria, Virginia, his family history is one of strength and community cohesion during the Depression and the difficulties he encountered attaining an education. Mr. Johnson offers a detailed description of the changes in road ways and housing development in Alexandria.
Paula Haskins Williams
Ms. Paula Haskins Williams was born in 1952 and has lived in Alexandria all of her life. During the interview, she discusses her family history, recalling how her father's family lived in the 'Cross Canal' neighborhood and later on, 'the Bergs.' She remembers her father telling her that their ancestors were buried in Alexandria's Freedmen's Cemetery.
Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery
This informative site includes an extensive collection of transcriptions of primary resources related to Alexandria’s African American history and genealogy, including the Gladwin Record of burials in Freedmen’s Cemetery.
This Facebook page, prepared by a participant in the 2007 excavation, includes slideshows of the cemetery history and photos of the archaeological fieldwork.
- The Alexandria Freedmen's Cemetery on facebook
Rededication Ceremony, May 12, 2007
- Alexandria Gazette, May 17, 2007
- Alexandria Times, May 17, 2007
- Richmond Times Dispatch, May 14, 2007
- Washington Post May 13, 2007
- Preservation Online May 9, 2007
- WJLA-TV (Channel 7), May 12, 2007
- WUSA-TV (Channel 9), May 15, 2007
Discovery of the Clovis Point , 2007
Memorial Dedication, September 6, 2014
- CBS Evening News *National* [Video] Once below gas station, Virginia cemetery restored.
- NBC4 [Video] City of Alexandria Dedicating Cemetery Memorial.
- Washington Post. A memorial honors slaves who escaped the South for refuge in Alexandria, Va.
- WTOP Freedmen honored at local park memorial.
- CBS Local City of Alexandria Dedicating Cemetery Memorial.
- WJLA 7 Alexandria dedicates memorial at Freedmen's Cemetery to African Americans who died in the Civil War.
- WUSA 9 Alexandria to dedicate memorial to African Americans who died in Civil War.
- Washington Informer [Cover Story] Alexandria Cemetery Dedication Draws Descendants.
- Greenfield Daily Reporter [AP]. City of Alexandria dedicating cemetery memorial to African Americans who died during Civil War.
- Alexandria Gazette Packet [Cover story] Memorial Cemetery Dedicated.
- Alexandria Times Out of the Attic: Dedication of memorial marks end of long journey for cemetery.
- Red Brick Town Alexandria Celebrates the Dedication of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial.
- AlexandriaNews.org. Alexandria Remembers Contraband And Freedmen With Memorial Dedication Freedmen Cemetery.
- Patch Media Alexandria Dedicates the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial.
African American Civil Rights Network, July 24, 2021
- ‘No longer forgotten’: Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria recognized nationally. WTOP, July 24, 2021
- "Telling our Stories" in Alexandria. Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery is the First Virginia Site Added to African American Civil Rights Network. Alexandria Gazette Packet, August 1, 2021
- Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria First Site in Virginia Recognized by African American Civil Rights Network. The Zebra, July 1, 2021
- Local site added to Civil Rights Network: Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial first site chosen in Virginia. Alexandria Times, July 8, 2021