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John Kelly's Washington

Answer Man: Free and Forgotten

By John Kelly
Monday, January 24, 2005; Page C11

I have always wondered about a sign I pass each evening when I drive home. Just before South Washington Street crosses I-495 in Alexandria, there is a sign on a fence on the west side of the road that reads "Freedmen's Contraband's Cemetery." There are always flowers fastened to the fence. What is the meaning of the sign? Why is it there?

Sonja Dieterich, Alexandria

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This is a story about forgetting. Some of the forgetting is willful, the way forgetting sometimes is, and some of it is the sort of forgetting that is inevitable when time grinds on, the present turning the past to powder.

Our story starts during the Civil War, with a decision made by a Union general named Benjamin Butler. Butler commanded Fort Monroe, a Union outpost in Virginia's Tidewater region. When escaped slaves showed up at his fort seeking freedom, he decided that they could be considered "contraband of war." Just as other enemy property -- horses, foodstuffs -- could be confiscated, so could slaves. This meant that any slave who could reach Union lines would have something close to freedom, even before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Alexandria already had a sizeable free black population, so-called freedmen. Now it swelled with runaway slaves -- so many, said Pam Cressey, the city's archaeologist, that it resulted in "a refugee situation."

The city's population grew by nearly one-half. As at refugee camps today, conditions were appalling, and disease was rampant. As contrabands and freedmen died, disposing of the bodies became a severe concern.

The Rev. Albert Gladwin, a civilian who was the superintendent of contrabands, urged Alexandria's military leaders to do something. The result was that a parcel of land on the outskirts of town was confiscated from its owner for use as a cemetery. The first bodies were buried in February 1864. Before the cemetery closed in 1869, an estimated 1,200 to 1,800 people were buried on the 1 1/2 -acre site.

It seems amazing that the cemetery could just be forgotten. True, it wouldn't have taken long for the wooden grave markers to rot away. And the cemetery was at one time out of the way. But its memory must have lived on in the families of those who were buried there.

"The only answer I can come up with is we just weren't relevant," said Lillie Finklea, an Alexandria resident who has been working to save the cemetery.

After the war, the land's owner, Francis Smith, reclaimed it. In 1917, his daughter Margaret conveyed the land to the Archdiocese of Richmond, which maintained a cemetery across the street, St. Mary's. The Catholic church sold the land in 1946 with the restriction that neither a saloon nor a gas station be built there.

The gas station restriction is ironic, because in 1957, after the land was sold again, Harper's Flying A service station opened there. A 3,000-gallon tank was buried at the site in 1965, and in 1967, Mobil Oil bought the station. ExxonMobil owns it today. The Washington area office of Domino's Pizza is in a building behind the station.

The cemetery might have stayed lost if it hadn't been for T. Michael Miller, Alexandria's historian. Michael spends a lot of time reading old copies of the Alexandria Gazette, and one day he came across an article from 1894. In it, the Gazette took issue with a story in, ahem, The Washington Post claiming that a contraband cemetery in the southwestern sector of Alexandria was washing away. In heavy rains, The Post wrote, skeletons floated down to the Potomac. Exposed bones were being collected and sold to fertilizer factories.

The Gazette wrote that there were only a few hundred graves, mostly of infants, and although the occasional bone was turned up by digging at a nearby brickworks, "no such state of things exist as portrayed in the Washington paper."

The Post might have exaggerated -- it claimed 4,000 contrabands were buried there -- but the story was prescient. With Michael's discovery, the cemetery was officially rediscovered. More detail was added when historian Wesley Pippenger discovered, at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, a list that was maintained by Gladwin of everyone buried at the cemetery.

"A lot of the names in that book are families that I know," Lillie Finklea said. She and Louise Massoud formed Friends of the Freedmen's Cemetery (www.freedmenscemetery.org). The group was founded after a 1997 article in The Post mentioned that an old black cemetery might be threatened by the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

"I lived here all my life, and I didn't even know the cemetery was there till I read that article," Lillie said.

In 1997, the group held a memorial service at the site, affixing a sign and some plastic flowers to a fence near the Capital Beltway. In 2000, an official historic marker was erected at South Washington and Church streets.

The Alexandria City Council has voted to remove the gas station and the nearby building and turn the site into a park. It will have to be done carefully; archaeological studies suggest that remains are very close to the surface.

By 2008 or 2009, the park should be complete. "It can never look the way it did," Lillie said. But hundreds of people who came to Alexandria a century and a half ago looking for freedom only to find death will again be at peace.

My assistant, Julia Feldmeier, helped research this column. Have a question about something in the Washington area? Write answerman@washpost.com, or John Kelly, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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