The graveyard seemed more like an old barren field, so at first I wasn’t interested. I had just moved to the Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, and the space was on the corner across the street.
I noticed an irregular pattern of paving stones on the sidewalk: two snaggletooth rows of white, intermixed with the red. Studying the shapes, I realized they outlined graves on the cemetery’s eastern edge that had been paved over. But it was the jagged statuary at the center—Mario Chioda’s “The Path of Thorns and Roses”—that finally pulled me in. Commissioned in 2013, Chioda’s work depicts figures struggling to free themselves from a tangle of rose vines; the sculpture represents the fight to escape slavery during the time of the Confederacy.
A historical marker named the place as the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery. Established during the Civil War, the grounds were used for interments of African Americans until 1869.
At a time when we’re debating the value and future of memorials to Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in places like Charlottesville and across the South, it was refreshing to find a memorial to some of the neglected casualties of this most devastating of American wars.
Including the sidewalk markers, only 540 of the original graves remain intact; they are marked by flagstones lying scattered in the grass. Identified by ground-penetrating radar, the graves came to light in the 1990s during a site survey for the new Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge. Adjacent to the statue sits a wide concrete slab, left in place to avoid disturbing the graves beneath it. It had served as the foundation for a gas station; now three walls frame an open space for bronze memorial plaques with the names of those buried.
During those years of the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, those who escaped from bondage in the South mixed with the freedmen of Alexandria while looking for housing, work, and a life beyond slavery. In this city on the edge of Union lines, the escaped were reclassified as “contrabands” and put to work as manual laborers in support of Union troops. Those who made it to areas occupied by Union Forces were deemed the most valuable contraband of the war years. To manage the flood of refugees, states created new administrative positions known as superintendents of contrabands. In 1862, Virginia authorities granted this role to Reverend Albert Gladwin, an African American.
By 1864, burial space was needed for the contrabands and freedmen of Alexandria, and a plot of abandoned land just south of the city was confiscated by the military. Superintendent Gladwin was tasked with recording the deaths and assisting poor and destitute people with coffins, headstones, and burials. By duty, he ensured that each grave was marked with a whitewashed wooden marker.
Gladwin kept a ledger to record the burials in this new cemetery, but his tenure did not last long. The reverend was fired a year later, in 1865. He refused to bury deceased U.S. Colored Troops in Alexandria’s newly established and better kept Soldiers’ Cemetery, insisting they be interred with the contrabands and freedmen, despite the wishes of the Army Quartermaster in Alexandria and recuperating African American troops.
The bodies of deceased soldiers were disinterred and moved to Soldiers’ Cemetery (now Alexandria National Cemetery) where both black and white soldiers are buried. The ledger was updated by the superintendents who succeeded him. It contains a listing of each individual buried in the cemetery, ordered by date of burial. The first burials are listed:
5 MAR 1864, George Lee, 3 years
COLLY, Infant son of Lid Colly
6 MAR 1864 John Lewis, 2y 3m, Prince St. Barracks, funeral by Leland Warring
BERRY, Billy, 72y, funeral by Peter Washington, Hayti
And so it reads, day after day and month after month, from George Lee’s burial until the final few entries:
21 DEC 1868 Gilbert Waters, 39, 173 Prince Street
Infant child of Margaret Gibson, Franklin near Washington
24 DEC 1868 Amanda Buckley, 20, Patrick St. betw. Cameron & Queen St.
12 JAN 1869 Millie Bailey, 80, Coal Wharve
In all, 1,711 burials are recorded in the ledger. Some of the dead were soldiers wounded in the area. Over half of the entries list children under the age of sixteen—children from families who lived in my adopted neighborhood; I recognize street names, corners, and even buildings mentioned in the records.
In 1869 the cemetery was officially closed, though unofficial burials continued for a few years after. Eventually the grave markers rotted, and this sacred space was erased from the communal memory of Alexandria. The ledger collected dust on a shelf until it was moved to the Library of Virginia in Richmond.
During the next hundred years, the property was sold, resold, and developed for commercial use. The adjacent brick making factory used the soil in its production, two major highways were developed, and then a gas station and office building were built on the property. I could take a moment here to contemplate the mindset of the people who dug up the remains of these individuals, and then just kept digging. But at this point it is perhaps more beneficial to look forward rather than back.
In 1987 a reference to the cemetery was rediscovered in an 1894 copy of the Alexandria Gazette. The cemetery, now mostly obliterated by decades of commercial use, was called back into memory. In 1997, a small group of Alexandria citizens founded the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery with a mission to reclaim the site as part of the city’s history. They lobbied continuously, and ten years later, the city of Alexandria acquired the property, razed the gas station and office building, defined the cemetery grounds, and began design work on a memorial.
Echoing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a few miles away, bronze plaques are inscribed with 1,711 names, although no one who served in uniform is buried here. However, those African Americans who escaped from Confederate lands were literally on the front lines of the war against slavery. Possessing little beyond the clothes they were wearing, they walked, ran, and hid as they fought their way north—the original foot soldiers in the War Between the States, who fought with their feet. By removing the capacity of their labor from the Confederate economy, they were a critical factor in its collapse.
Included in the memorial is a bas-relief depicting the flight to freedom done by local sculptor Joanna Blake. Below it is a description of one girl’s flight north.
I traveled 65 miles and we had 52 in our number. be fore.
we crost. the river… we tought. we wold. be taken eny
moment. the babys. cried. and we could whear . the sound
of them. on the warter. we lay all night. in the woods.
and the next . day. we traveled. on and we. reached. Suffolk
that night. and we. lost twenty. one. of the Number.
—Emma Bynum, a freedwoman describing her flight to freedom in a composition for her schoolteacher, Miss Lucy Chase
The 1,711 named stand in proxy for the many thousands of unnamed African Americans who died on the journey north and were buried along the way. Through their names, we are invited to remember all who lost their lives fleeing slavery.
In 2008, the city hired genealogist Char McCargo Bah as part of the team to shape the site of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial; her task was to identify living relatives of the individuals buried there. Bah is herself African American and well acquainted with the difficulties of tracing families split up on the slave-trading block: written records were incomplete or nonexistent, or the enslaved took on family names of their owners. Still, working from the list in the ledger, she was able to locate almost 200 families scattered across the country who had ancestors in the cemetery. As descendants were located, the name at the memorial was marked with a bronze button. Some descendants, still living in the area, knew the corner, but only as a commercial space.
This cemetery has been restored and added to the contemporary landscape, my neighborhood. It provides a time and space for African Americans to both mourn and celebrate their ancestors, to seek pride in their fight for escape and freedom.
Charleen Smith-Riedel is a volunteer at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Having retired from the tech industry in Seattle, she has picked up on her dated folklore studies, completed at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and is committed to writing on folklife topics for Wikipedia.