The Journey to be Free
The exhibition runs through the end of December 2019
Alexandria Black History Museum
An exhibition highlighting the history of Alexandria's contraband population (escaped slaves) during the Civil War. This 2014 exhibit returns in honor of the 5th anniversary of Alexandria's Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery and Memorial dedication.
The Journey to be Free: Self-emancipation and Alexandria's Contraband Heritage.
The news spread quickly by word of mouth. Freedom was within reach. Facing the threat of recapture, harsh punishment, or death, the enslaved came from miles around — men, women, and children. Many had only the clothes on their backs, and a determination to be free. During the Civil War, thousands of African Americans escaping slavery sought refuge behind Union lines in Alexandria, Virginia. First, they were runaways. Then, they were called “contrabands.” By the end of the war, they were freedmen who had fought for their own liberation and built communities and lives afresh—the first step in a long and difficult road to full equality. The fugitives found freedom in Alexandria, but they also found a city under siege. The influx overwhelmed Alexandria, and rampant disease and deprivation took their toll on the freedmen. A cemetery was created for those who had survived slavery, but did not live long in freedom. By the end of the 19th century, the cemetery fell victim to neglect and desecration. Its story—and that of those laid to rest there—was all but lost. A chance discovery by researchers launched a decades-long campaign by local activists to reclaim the sacred ground. Today, the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial honors the freedmen’s contributions to the City of Alexandria and the legacy of freedom personified by their descendants.
Image: Bas relief by artist Joanna Blake, Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial.