For Freedmen, Long-Due Respect

Pictured are the contraband, or freedmen, barracks in 1864. After Alexandria was occupied by Union forces in 1861, the army employed former slaves to help in the construction of military facilities.
Pictured are the contraband, or freedmen, barracks in 1864. After Alexandria was occupied by Union forces in 1861, the army employed former slaves to help in the construction of military facilities. (Courtesy Of The Alexandria Archaeology Museum)

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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

The small, white porcelain button lay just inches below the asphalt.

It was found three years ago when Alexandria archaeologists started digging beneath the surface of a gas station that had been sitting for decades at the busy intersection of South Washington and Church streets.

The button, from a dead person's clothing, was evidence of what lay there more than a century ago: Freedmen's Cemetery, a burial ground that opened in 1864 to accommodate the flood of former slaves who lived -- and died -- in Alexandria during the Civil War.

The discovery in 2004, along with other evidence of graves, was part of an $8 million project that has been 10 years in the making: to rededicate the site and commemorate the 1,800 people buried on the 1.5-acre plot.

As construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge was being planned, a citizens group called Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery urged the city to buy and renovate the site using some of the mitigation money it had received from the Federal Highway Administration for the bridge project. Sponsors include the Virginia Department of Transportation, which donated land abutting the gas station; the city of Alexandria; and the National Park Service, which awarded the project a Save America's Treasures grant. On May 12, the city will rededicate the site as Freedmen's Memorial Park.

For some, the rededication has been long overdue.

They "did not receive the proper sacredness for their burials, so it's important to return the cemetery site to one of respect," said Louis Hicks, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, which is helping to organize the project.

"A gas station was placed on top of a cemetery," Hicks said. "That's not something that's done as a sign of respect."

Respect was not forthcoming for the Freedmen's Cemetery during most of the 20th century. Cars zoomed by it on Washington Street, which covered some of the graves when it was widened. In the 1960s, the Beltway went through a block away, and builders used a backhoe to scrape away part of the cemetery grounds.

Respect was elusive to the cemetery's inhabitants even in life. Whether they were born free or had escaped slavery, many of Alexandria's black residents in the late 19th century did backbreaking work, lived in unsanitary conditions and often died young, because of cholera, consumption and other reasons. Half the people buried in the cemetery were younger than 10.

Blacks poured into Alexandria during those years because in 1861 the city was occupied by Union troops and became a Union stronghold abutting Confederate Fairfax County. During the war, thousands crossed the line to freedom, by foot, horse or oxen, increasing Alexandria's population from 12,000 to about 22,000 in four years, according to archaeologists and historians. Once here, blacks found work as laborers and domestic servants.

"People built shanties; they were in the streets, in the intersections; they were just everywhere," said Pamela Cressey, an archaeologist for the city. "And because of insufficient housing, food, et cetera, they really were dying at an alarming rate."

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