- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

Thousands of cars each day pass by a service station at the corner of Washington and Church streets in Alexandria after crossing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from Maryland into Virginia.

Some people stop to get gas. Possibly a few stop long enough to read the Virginia historical marker that notes that this was the burial place for about 1,700 freed blacks from 1864 until 1869.

A thoughtful person might wonder, “Now where could all those people have been reburied?” Yet as you pump your gas and read the sign, you are walking on the remains of those people — half of whom were 5 years old and younger.

The freed black population of Alexandria exploded during the Civil War, at one point reaching 8,700 — or about half the citizens of the city. Land was needed for the living — and a proper burial ground for those who died. In January 1864, the Alexandria military governor, Gen. John P. Slough, seized a piece of undeveloped land from a Confederate sympathizer, Francis Smith, and opened it in February as a burying ground for “contrabands.”

Black troops, at first, also were buried there, but their comrades insisted that they be moved to the “Soldiers Cemetery.” The remains of 75 black veterans were removed to the Alexandria National Cemetery in January 1865.

At war’s end, responsibility for Freedmen’s Cemetery was transferred to the new Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress cut off most of the agency’s funding at the end of 1868, and the cemetery was closed. Mr. Smith reclaimed the property, but it remained largely undisturbed for 80 years while the wooden markers rotted away.

In 1917, the Smith family conveyed the property to the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, which maintained its own cemetery across the street.

One stipulation was that no saloon or gas station would be built on the spot. However, in 1946, the Catholic Church sold the property. and the parcel was rezoned for commercial use. In the mid-1950s, a gas station and two-story office building were placed there.

The cemetery was forgotten until Alexandria’s research historian, Michael Miller, uncovered a newspaper article from the 1890s. Mr. Miller wrote about the site in 1989.

Alexandria resident Lillie Finklea read an article in The Washington Post on Jan. 30, 1997, that said an unknown black cemetery on South Washington Street could hold up the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge project. Not long afterward, Ms. Finklea and her friend Louise Massoud founded the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery.

Ms. Finklea, now 66, had lived in Alexandria since she was 3 and was aware of its black history, but she had known nothing of this cemetery. Starting on Memorial Day 1997, she and other Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery started laying wreaths on a fence at the edge of the site, above the Beltway. She was afraid the graves might not be preserved.

The group charges no dues, so members raised funds to support preservation of the plot. On Sept. 30, 2000, a Virginia historical marker was placed on the corner of the property.

The city of Alexandria was made aware of the historical value of the land and is in the process of purchasing it.

“I am so grateful for what the city of Alexandria has done to reclaim and preserve this land,” Ms. Finklea says. “There are over 1,800 people buried here, and we must keep their memory for future generations.”

The city archaeologist, Pamela Cressey, had placed the cemetery on her archaeology maps to make sure it would be preserved. When the Wilson Bridge project was approved, and the same information was provided for environmental and archaeological assessments.

According to Ms. Cressey, the cemetery originally was about 11/2 acres. The federal government never filed any legal papers to take it over, so there were no legal boundaries. There is just information from the Smith family, which owned the property before the Civil War. Thus, it is almost impossible to know the original boundaries. It is possible that some remains are buried under modern Washington Street. About 80 graves were discovered recently along the bluff that skirts Interstate 495.

For the sake of preservation, no remains will be moved. The goal of the present project is protection — and to make sure the cemetery is honored.

The land is much higher than it was in the 1860s, and the graves probably are shallow. The land has been cut so much in some places that it may never be known whether there were graves in certain places.

Ms. Cressey wonders, “Where were the boundaries? Is there any evidence of fence posts? Were there walkways? Or landscaping?”

She adds: “We know there were grave markers — but they were wood. But there might be evidence of the disintegration of the wood in the ground. So the buildings will be demolished. Then the archaeologists will supervise the removal of the asphalt and locate the graves, so they will be protected. That will happen in 2006.”

Present plans are for the buildings to be razed to the asphalt, after which the archaeologists will supervise removal of the asphalt. They hope to discover the rows of graves. Finally, a competition will be held to create a landscape and memorial sculpture for the park. That is slated for 2007. The park should be ready for the public in 2008.

There has been increased awareness by Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille and the City Council that it really is an important place. The refugees faced a difficult situation when they moved to Alexandria during the Civil War. They died at higher rates than other people. Their cemetery and even their history had been forgotten.

Ancestry investigator Wes Pippenger discovered burial records in Richmond, transcribed them and made the records available to the public. So there is a general idea of where people were buried, and through additional excavations and research, the boundaries are becoming known.

Part of the litigation money for the bridge is to be used for the memorial park. It will include a sculpture and possibly a wall with the names and ages of those who died. The names were recorded day by day. Some are mother and child. More than half are children 5 years or younger.

It is possible to know who these people were, how they died or why they died, and where they lived when they were here. Thus, an important part of Alexandria’s Civil War history is being reclaimed.

William Connery lives in Alexandria and is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. He can be reached at william.connery@verizon.net. More information about the cemetery can be found at www.freedmenscemetery.org.

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