City’s burial sites speak of past lives

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City’s burial sites speak of past lives

April 7, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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A portion of a handle from a coffin in the Black Baptist Association cemetery, slated to be part of the new African American Heritage Park.

Excavating an historic cemetery is a poignant experience. It gives you pause to think about the people you are excavating and your own origins, future, and value. You can rise for moment beyond your own cares to an appreciation of the collective continuity of our species. 

We bury people in our society to acknowledge their worth in our lives, commemorate their accomplishments and provide a final "resting place." Many of the gravestone inscriptions in Alexandria refer to the cemetery plot and death as a place of peace and to lives of toil. Some of the inscriptions reach out across time to speak to us today.

I have been particularly moved by the words left on Hannah Seaton Hamilton's gravestone in 1851:

Oh that my words were now written!

Oh that they were printed in a book!

Hannah died at the age of 30. What words would she have printed in a book? Would she have told us about life in Haiti, the African American neighborhood which stood in the 19th century near the Old Town Safeway? Both the Seatons and Hamiltons were prominent black families in Haiti. But you cannot determine that Hannah was African American from her gravestone, positioned in the Trinity United Methodist Cemetery at the western end of Wilkes Street. Philip Hamilton helped start the black congregation associated with Trinity which is now the Roberts Methodist Episcopal. Hannah rests in her family plot with Alfred, Catherine, and Philip Hamilton. But where are the other blacks in this congregation. For that matter, where are African American cemeteries in Alexandria?

According to Wes Pippenger's research, the earliest known black cemetery was created by the Union army during the Civil War on -South Washington Street. In 1885, the Silver Leaf Society filed incorporation papers as the Black Baptist Association and ~established a burial ground on Holland Lane just west of Duke Street. It is the first cemetery known to have been operated by African Americans.

Although only one tombstone remained by the 1980s, archaeological excavations have determined that many more burials still are preserved under ground. The work was undertaken to locate the burials and protect them in their original locations as the new African American Heritage Park was constructed. While the graves were not disturbed, we did find that some parts of the site had been previously rearranged. Within this section, two artifacts were found, a coffin handle and half of a man's vest.

The records of the burial association are missing and we know little about the people who founded the cemetery nor those buried there. Please contact me if you have information about the cemetery or these individuals: Thomas Mann, Henry Webb, Charles Lee (1401 King Street); Abraham and Sarah Hunter (died 1891 and 1896, respectively); Julia Ann Washington (died 1890); Matilda Gaines (died 1897); Mary Rome (born in Culpeper County, died 1899).

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.