September 14, 2011 From Alexandria (Va.) Gazette Packet: On Its Way to Be ‘A Place of Remembrance’
Family Ties connect with Freedmen’s Cememtery
By Mark McHugh
The undeveloped patch of grassland overlooking the Capital Beltway at the south end of Old Town holds deep meaning for Alexandria-native Fran Burton.
With help from a genealogist, Burton, 62, recently unearthed the fact that two of her ancestors are buried at the historic Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery, a once neglected and now soon-to-be-renovated 150-year-old cemetery.
“It almost knocked me off my feet,” Burton said about the discovery of the final resting place of her great uncle and a thrice-removed cousin. “It made me so dizzy that I had to catch myself. It brought out emotions I didn’t even know were there.”
The Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery opened in 1864 and, within just five years, more than 1,800 former slaves and United States Colored Troops were buried there.
Now, after decades of neglect and encroachment by highways and developers, the cemetery is slated to undergo a $2 million facelift beginning this winter when a construction company begins building a memorial to those interred there.
The term“freedmen” refers to African Americans who had been freed from slavery by their owners. “Contraband” was a term used by the Federal government during the Civil War to describe a slave who escaped or was brought within Union lines.
Burton’s freedmen ancestors came to light last fall with the help of world-renowned genealogist Char McCargo Bah, who has assisted the City of Alexandria to identify descendents of those interred at the cemetery.
William Henry Norton, who was buried there in 1866, is Burton’s paternal great uncle. Leanna Robinson, interred 1865, is her maternal thrice-removed cousin. Both died in childhood.
Burton said that she suspected her ancestors were buried at the cemetery. “But I never expected to find someone that close to me [as a great uncle],” she said.
Burton, who now lives in Sacramento, Calif., feels that she owes it to her ancestors to discover more of their pasts.
“Something has happened that brought me this far, and I am going to find out the rest of it,” Burton said. “Things are falling into place, and it’s time for their stories to be told.”
TODAY at the corner of South Washington and Church streets, honeysuckle and roses crawl toward a chain-link fence. Glass bottle shards are scattered about the adjacent sidewalk. Placards attached to the fence state “Most of the people here were destitute”and “More than half those buried here died by their 10th birthday.”
While the Federal cemetery closed in 1869, it was likely used unofficially by families as a burial ground until the late 19th century, according to historians. A brick company, while digging for clay on the cemetery’s hillside in the 1890s, chanced upon human remains. In the 20th century, a gas station and an office building were built on top of some of the graves.
Interest in the site was renewed in 1987 when City historian T. Michael Miller found an 1894 Alexandria Gazette reference to the cemetery. An advocacy group, Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery, formed soon after and pushed to preserve the site, particularly from disruption by construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The gas station and office building were demolished in 2007 and the site was rededicated as a cemetery soon after.
THE MEMORIAL is spearheaded by the City of Alexandria and the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery, with funds the Federal Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation, and a grant from Save America’s Treasures, a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
More than 200 architects and designers from 20 countries across the world competed for the memorial three years ago. Alexandria architect C.J. Howard took first place; second and third runners-up, respectively, were: Santosh Dhamat, Elizabeth Eubank, Solvita Marriott, Tracy Revis of Howard & Revis Design Services; and Paul Simon & Regan Harrold of Beals and Thomas, Inc.
The memorial will include a three-sided enclosure serving as a “Place of Remembrance” at the highest point in the cemetery. Bronze plaques on a wall will feature the names and time of death or burial of those interred. Stone markers will be placed at known grave locations. An arched entrance gateway from Washington Street will invite visitors to walk past grave locations to the centrally-located enclosure.
The City plans to advertise for potential contractors, said Alexandria city engineer Emily Baker. “We will have a contractor on board this fall,” she said.
Baker said construction will begin early this winter. “It will be before the end of the year,” she said, when construction begins.
Pamela Cressey, the city archaeologist, said that archaeological studies in the last decade found the locations of more than 500 of the 1,800 graves. Cressey said that oftentimes only the shape of a grave remained in the soil. In other cases, only coffin hinges or the buttons of a shirt were left.
“The graves are closer to the surface than you might think,” she said. “If they [the original grave diggers] did, in fact, dig six feet down, it’s no longer there.” Cressey said that today citizens favor site preservation over expedited development.
“I think it’s the voice of descendents and the community that has altered the collective conscience of Americans,” she said.
Baker said the new commemorative memorial is a chance for the city to rectify past wrongs done toward the cemetery and those interred there.
“This is an opportunity for the City to correct this regrettable situation,”she said.
-Published Sept. 8, 2011, p. 10 in
Alexandria Gazette Packet
Tags: Alexandria, Alexandria Gazette Packet, Char McCargo Bah, Contrabands, Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery, Freedmen, Leanna Robinson, Pamela Cressey, Place of Remembrance, Va., William Henry Norton