Park makes symbols of ordinary lives

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Park makes symbols of ordinary lives

July 27, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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The bronze burial mound sculpture at the Alexandria African American Heritage Park commemorates the 26 people who are known to have been buried in the Black Baptist Cemetery.

What is the value of a human life? Perhaps we all answer this question in different ways at various times in our lives as our perspectives change. The optimist and pessimist, spiritualist and agnostic will also reach different conclusions. 

In the new Alexandria African American Heritage Park, artist and humanist Jerome Meadows, had an even greater task: to memorialize "the history, struggles, endeavors and accomplishments of a people." In his own words, Mr. Meadows sought to express the "broader relevance and connectiveness of this people to the greater society" . . . and "the up close, personal and in some ways private accounting of a community as it journeys within the human drama." How do you express in a tangible art form the value of a people, a community, the hundreds of thousands of Alexandria's African American citizens?

Mr. Meadows created three pieces from bronze, two of which sit within a circle in the one acre of the park which is the Black Baptist Cemetery. The larger sculpture represents three trees which bear engravings of many African Americans and their accomplishments. To the north, sits a rounded bronze form symbolizing a burial mound.

Commemorating the Baptist Cemetery Association, incorporated in 1885, the sculpture captures the spirit of this 110 year old burying ground. Unlike many other cemeteries in Alexandria, it was forgotten over the years. The gravestones of its occupants deteriorated, or, possibly were removed or covered over.

Archaeological investigations located a total of 26 burial shafts; however, only five names appear on the few gravestones discovered during the excavations. Probably many more were once buried here. While the names of many known African American leaders appear on the bronze trees, how is it possible to commemorate the unknown people buried here?

Engraved on the bronze mound are the words: "From the past they speak, in varied voice and familiar faces." Twenty one faces are arranged below these words as well as five names to represent the 26 known graves in the cemetery. Four women--Mary Rome, Matilda Gaines, Sara Hunter and Julia Ann Washington--and one man--Abraham Hunter--are the individuals cited. Their gravestones now appear above ground in the cemetery.

We still know little about these people who died in the 1890s. Sara Hunter's gravestone inscription does provide a glimpse into their lives: Life's race well run/Life's work well done/Life's crown well won/Now comes rest. Visit the park on Holland Lane between Duke and Eisenhower streets and rest while you ponder life's race. Any one interested in studying these people, please contact me at 703-838-4399 or Audry Davis at the Black History Museum, 703-838-4356.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.