Tag Archives: Alexandria Gazette Packet
September 3, 2012 Working To Create a Fitting Memorial: Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial on Pace for Spring 2013 Opening [Alexandria (Va.) Gazette Packet (08/30/12)]:
Alexandria — In Spring 2007, the City of Alexandria purchased a desolate and overgrown lot on the southern edge of town and promptly razed the site’s two buildings.
Six years later that same spot is going to be an historical and appropriate homage to that place’s unseen — and unheard — inhabitants when the city dedicates the Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial this spring.
The project, which will cost around $11 million, receives funding from the City of Alexandria, the Federal Highway Administration, Virginia Department of Transportation, a grant from Save America’s Treasures, and funding from a partnership between the National Parks Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Following July’s groundbreaking ceremony, construction crews have been working on location six days a week.
The freedmen’s cemetery at the corner of South Washington and Church streets has been owned by several entities since it was closed in 1869.
Freedmen were African Americans freed from slavery by their owners. Contrabands were slaves who escaped to freedom or were brought within Union lines during the Civil War.
While the property’s previous owners literally bulldozed their way there to benefit business, the city has taken quite a different approach: it is redeveloping the area to revere the grave sites.
The cemetery has been blanketed with several hundred truckloads of fill soil to make way for a grass mixture of fescue and Kentucky bluegrass.
The plantings and construction plans follow closely on the heels of almost two decades of extensive and non-invasive archaeological analysis. Archaeological findings have identified about 540 known graves, said Alexandria city engineer Emily Baker.
“We didn’t move dirt,” said Mitchell Bernstein, civil engineer for the city. “We just took off the vegetation at a very shallow depth, and then brought the soil in. The only digging we did was in a preventative manner, to make sure we weren’t violating any graves.”
Archaeologists have located grave shafts, and in many cases, the outline of hexagonal “shouldered” style coffin tops, through identifying changes in soil color and texture. According to city records, no grave can be associated with a particular person.
This renovation is hardly only aesthetics or grass deep, assured city officials, who said that the project has been undertaken with a great deal of historical and cultural sensitivity.
“The challenge is trying to construct something as a suitable memorial and not have any negative impact on the cultural resource,” Baker said.
The centerpiece of the memorial area, called a “Place of Remembrance,” is an open space housing interpretive walls with several panels detailing the cemetery’s history, and a list of recorded names of the interred based on information from the Gladwin Record. A listing maintained from 1863 to 1869, the record includes information of those interred, including their name, date of death or burial, next of kin or individual providing the report, residence or place of death, and additional comments about the burial or cause of death. A sculpture is to be installed at the front of the open space.
Fifty-three feet long and 31 feet wide, the place of remembrance is the highest point in the cemetery, where a Mobil gas station once stood.
In recent years the cemetery was a roadside brownfield strewn with trash, including slab remnants of the gas station and an office building.
A portion of the office building’s foundation on Church Street will stand, because the project’s planners wished to not gloss over past transgressions of the cemetery. “They didn’t want this to be forgotten,” said Bernstein.
The city has taken a painstaking approach toward design and construction with respect to the graves.
To that end, 8-inch diameter steel helical piles will be used as foundations to anchor some segments of the galvanized steel tubing fence line.
While sturdy fence construction often utilizes larger diameter inserts, the narrower ones used here are suitable fence anchors that won’t disturb nearby gravesites.
“It minimizes the footprint of the pier,” said Bernstein, who was onsite earlier this month.
Bernstein motioned over to the outer proposed fence area, where different colored stakes indicated proximity — and safe construction distances — adjacent to gravesites. “We have a variable system designed,” he said.
Workers of Garcete Construction Company Inc., of Bladensburg, Md., are following cues from Bernstein and Mitchell to maintain the sanctity of the grave sites as work progresses.
“Everything had to be designed very carefully, to avoid the graves,” Baker said.
The city will lay place markers on the grave sites found during the archaeological studies. Some of them will be outlined with borders to give visitors a sense of scale, Baker said.
“A lot of the people buried here were children, and a lot of the shafts were very small, so you should be able to get a sense of the size of the child that was buried,” Baker said.
City records show that more than half of the 1,800 people buried in the cemetery between 1864 and 1869 were under the age of 10.
Survey information indicates gravesite positions. “We have the survey data that shows exactly where they are located, so we can come back after they are finished with the grading,” Baker said. “They will put down the grass, and then we will go back and relocate them and put the markers on top of the coordinates.”
The cemetery holds not only the graves of freedmen and contrabands. The oldest artifact yet found in Alexandria, a 13,000-year-old Clovis spear point, was recovered here in 2007. A marker will be placed at its recovery site.
Additionally, a place marker will be laid to commemorate a spot where 124 United States Colored Troops were buried. These soldiers’ graves were disinterred in 1865 and moved to the Soldiers’ Cemetery, now the Alexandria National Cemetery.
A gentle westward slope descends to a low-lying area, which at one time led to a creek. This section will be designated a “passive” portion of the memorial, conducive to walking and gathering. This area is outside the archaeological protection zone, where trees will be planted, along with a walkway.
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