Douglass Memorial Cemetery
Douglass Cemetery Drainage and Preservation Update
The City has developed plans to implement solutions that are respectful and appropriate to the sensitive nature of the site. At a June 12, 2023 meeting, City Staff presented an update on the plans to address the causes of flooding in addition to other preservation updates. The presentation can be viewed here .
City staff presented recent updates on cemetery ownership status, upcoming archaeological testing, and stormwater design plans at public meeting on December 5, 2023. The presentation can be viewed here .
Anticipatory burial permit has been approved by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. This permit allows the archaeological testing phase to begin. Archaeological excavations at Douglass Cemetery will begin in January. The archaeologists are from the consulting firm Gray and Pape. The work will likely take a week, depending on the weather. The goal of this testing is to determine the presence of burials within the utility trench corridor and to determine the width of the existing utility trench. We do not anticipate finding burials. If any burials or human remains are encountered, work will cease immediately, and the Descendant Advisory Group will be contacted. More information can be found in the public meeting PowerPoints.
“WHEREAS, every Alexandrian must reckon with the City's historical past as well as our explicit and implicit involvement and contributions to the institution of American slavery and the subsequent and deeply rooted racial inequities of today.”
All Alexandria: Committing to Race and Social Equity (RESOLUTION NO. 2974)
Douglass Memorial Cemetery, located at 1421 Wilkes Street, faces several preservation challenges, including flooding and drainage problems, which are complicated by the presence of unmarked burials and the ownership status of the parcel. The City of Alexandria has staff from the Office of Historic Alexandria, Transportation and Environmental Services, and Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities working to address these preservation issues. The City is developing plans to study and determine solutions that are respectful and appropriate to the sensitive nature of the site. Public involvement and feedback are a very important part of maintaining this Alexandria cemetery. Updates and notices will appear on this webpage.
The Douglass Cemetery Association established Douglass Memorial Cemetery in 1895 as a segregated, nondenominational African American cemetery and named in memory of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). That year, the Alexandria Gazette reported,
“A force of workmen is employed in opening the walks, grading the ground and grading an entrance at the new Douglass Memorial cemetery for colored people, on the western outskirts of the city. The owners of the property [are] preparing to erect a monument in the center of the cemetery to the memory of Fred. Douglass.”
The western half of the cemetery was used first and was divided into family lots with relatives being buried together. The other half shows a pattern of burials in sequence of when people died. Records suggest over 2,000 people may have been buried at Douglass, yet fewer than 700 grave markers are visible today. Some markers have fallen over or sunk into the ground, but many burials may have been originally marked with only an impermanent wooden marker, or with no marker at all.
The last known burial at Douglass was in 1975, and while the cemetery is no longer managed or maintained by the association, it has not been forgotten by the friends and families of those buried here. In recent years, the City of Alexandria, as well as Douglass’ neighbors including Old Town Village, have stepped in to assist in caring for the cemetery, including mowing and trash cleanup. The Social Responsibility Group and the Friends of Douglass Cemetery have worked diligently to raise awareness of the significance of the cemetery and the preservation issues.
- See more Historic Cemeteries of Alexandria.
Oral History Initiative
The Office of Historic Alexandria is pleased to announce that Virginia Humanities has awarded our department with a $20,000 grant to support the new oral history initiative to document the stories of the Douglass Cemetery descendant community. This project is supported by the Social Responsibility Group and utilizes interns from Howard University.
The City of Alexandria is committed to the preservation of this historic Black burial ground in partnership with the Social Responsibility Group and the Friends of Douglass Cemetery. Alexandria residents and City staff have identified several issues that threaten the preservation of this site, including drainage problems and areas of standing water, as well as the condition of the burial markers. Preservation efforts at Douglass Cemetery will take time given the complexity of the issues and the sensitive nature of the historic site, including the presence of unmarked burials.
Research and Documentation
In support of these efforts, local historians and the Office of Historic Alexandria have compiled existing research on Douglass Cemetery, registered the site as an archaeological and architectural resource with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and continues with documentation efforts. Publications and sources documenting the cemetery include:
Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Volumes 3 and Volume 5, Wesley E. Pippenger, Family Line Publications, 1992 and 2005.
Alexandria historian Wesley Pippenger has surveyed many Alexandria cemeteries and published several volumes of Alexandria tombstone inscriptions, transcribing this valuable historic resource and making the information more readily available. Volumes 3 and 5 have information related to Douglass Cemetery, available at Local History/Special Collections, Barrett Branch Library.
Those Upon Whom the Curtain Has Fallen Past and Present Cemeteries of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia With Walking Tours of Old Town, Mark D. Greenly, Alexandria Archaeology Publications Number 88, Alexandria Archaeology, Office of Historic Alexandria, City of Alexandria, Virginia, 1996.
This document pulls together information on many of the cemeteries in Old Town Alexandria, and includes a brief section on Douglass Cemetery (page 27).
Douglass Cemetery Association Fairfax County, Virginia: Interment Records, 1896-1959, compiled by T. Michael Miller, 2004.
In 2004, City Historian T. Michael Miller published, “Douglass Cemetery Association, Fairfax County, Virginia: Interment Records, 1896-1959,” which includes page scans and transcriptions of the original Douglass Cemetery Association records. These include the names of people buried at Douglass, the date they were buried, fees paid and by whom, and sometimes the location within the cemetery they were buried. Available at Local History/Special Collections, Barrett Branch Library.
Non-invasive Geophysical Surveys Douglass Memorial and Penny Hill Cemeteries, Alexandria, Virginia. Rhea Engineers and Consultants, Inc., Alexandria, Virginia, Nadia E. Johnson, RPA and William J. Johnson, PG, Rhea Engineers and Consultants, Inc., 2019. Available online with charts and figures.
In 2019, researchers working with Alexandria Archaeology conducted a non-invasive geophysical survey at two historic cemeteries maintained by the City, Penny Hill Cemetery and Douglass Memorial Cemetery. This remote sensing survey used two geophysical survey techniques (ground penetrating radar and electrical conductivity) to identify the potential locations of burials without physically disturbing the ground. These instruments were dragged or pushed along the ground surface and recorded characteristics of the soil below that may indicate burials. Similar surveys have been conducted at historic cemeteries elsewhere in the City, including at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, Fort Ward, Ivy Hill Cemetery, and St. Mary’s Cemetery. This project was partially funded through a Certified Local Government grant from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
The Office of Historic Alexandria is compiling a complete list of people buried in Douglass Cemetery using the interment records (published by T. Michael Miller in 2004), the Virginia Death Certificate Records beginning in 1912 that indicate burial location, and other sources. Working with City surveyors, OHA has also documented the locations of the existing grave markers in Douglass. The goal of these and future efforts is to help families identify the burials of their relatives, and aid in genealogical and African American history research, and to guide preservation efforts here at Douglass Cemetery.
An upcoming condition assessment will document the markers in the cemetery and note needed maintenance, straightening, and repairs, and recommend future conservation treatments and costs.
Timeline and Project Updates
2024 January: Anticipatory burial permit approved. Archaeological testing phase begins.
2023 Fall: City of Alexandria accepts deed of quitclaim to begin stormwater improvement project.
2023 Fall: Douglass Cemetery Descendant Advisory group forms to consult on cemetery preservation issues and partner with Historic Alexandria on the Community History Project, including oral history.
2023 Summer: The City develops plans to implement stormwater solutions that are respectful and appropriate to the sensitive nature of the site. At a June 12, 2023 meeting, City Staff presented an update on the plans to address the causes of flooding in addition to other preservation updates. The presentation can be viewed here .
2022 Winter: Conservator Howard Wellman of Wellman Conservation, LLC completed a condition survey of Douglass Cemetery gravestones and compiled detailed descriptions and recommendations on priorities for treatment. Read the Cemetery Preservation Plan.
2022 Fall: Conservator Howard Wellman of Wellman Conservation, LLC will perform a condition survey of Douglass Cemetery. This survey includes two phases. The goal of phase one is to create condition notes for all visible gravestones, treatment priority recommendations based on condition, and budget estimates. The visual inspection will document the material, style, and condition of each stone. For example, some stones may only need light cleaning while others may require more extensive, professional treatment to restore them to better condition. Phase 2 of the survey will create a conservation condition assessment of the gravestones in the most serious condition with treatment recommendations and cost estimates. These recommendations will guide future conservation and preservation of the gravestones. Recommendations will be shared with stakeholders before any work is planned. Documenting the condition of the stones is one important step in the larger effort to restore the cemetery and preserve Alexandria’s African American history.
2022 August: The Department of Project Implementation (with support from OHA, TES, and RPCA) has contracted with Jacobs Engineering Group to conduct a local drainage analysis for the area in and around Douglass Cemetery to develop alternatives to address flooding. Jacobs will review available data, conduct a site visit and desktop drainage analysis to develop feasible planning level drainage alternatives to reduce flooding in the cemetery and improve overall drainage in the areas surrounding the cemetery site. This is a critical first step in addressing the most pressing preservation threat to the cemetery caused by the frequent standing water. The findings of the study will be shared with the public.
2022 July: Project funded. News Release, July 8, City of Alexandria Notes State Financial Support for City Projects in Recently Signed State Budget.
2022: General Assembly Funding Request, $500,000 for cemetery preservation. Additional $500,000 budget amendments from Senator Adam Ebbin and Delegate Elizabeth Bennett-Parker.
2019: Non-invasive Geophysical Survey Completed
2019: New Historic Interpretation Sign Installed
Douglass Cemetery in the News
- A Virginia teen saw a historic black cemetery in disrepair. He recruited his fellow Boy Scouts to restore it. Hannah Natanson, The Washington Post, August 15, 2019.
- Concerns growing over flooding at historically Black cemetery in Alexandria. Matthew Torres, WUSA9 News, August 31, 2021.
- A Sacred Trust: Protecting African American Burial Grounds. Alexandria Community Remembrance Project Newsletter, November 2021.
- The Fight to Preserve Douglass Cemetery. Olivia Anderson, Alexandria Times, November 26, 2021.
- FindFamilyRoutes.com, October 2021. Scroll down the page to read an interview with Michael Johnson, a longtime resident of Alexandria, VA and a descendant of African Americans interred in Douglass Cemetery.