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For Freedmen, Long-Due Respect
City to Rededicate Civil War-Era Burial Site for Blacks, on Which Gas Station Was Built

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."

To build the cemetery, the U.S. military seized land that belonged to Francis L. Smith, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's attorney, who had fled with his family at the onset of the war. "It was the edge of town," Cressey said. "There was nothing on it."

People continued to be buried there until at least 1869. In 1917, Smith's daughter deeded the land to the bishop of Richmond. The wooden shingles that marked the graves soon deteriorated and disappeared. In 1946, the plot passed into private hands. In 1955, a gas station was built on it.

To investigate what still lay beneath, a team of archaeologists cut away cross sections of asphalt. In some places, they found evidence of graves right away; in others, the bodies had been removed during construction projects or land grading. So far, 123 grave sites have been located; the team does not expect to find all the sites.

But the archaeologists do have the names of every person buried there, thanks to cemetery managers who recorded them in a ledger. For the rededication, 1,800 candlelit paper-bag luminarias, each with the name, age and date of death of a person buried there, are being hand-decorated by the community. Schoolchildren have decorated many of the bags. Many adults also have come forward, including war veterans and groups from New York and Baltimore.

"It has generated a lot of community interest," said Ruth Reeder, an educator at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, which will host a community luminaria-decorating workshop Saturday; another workshop will be at the Alexandria Black History Museum on May 5.

Photographs of the luminarias will be posted at http://www.freedmenscemetery.org.

After the gas station and a two-story office building behind it are demolished later this spring, the city will have a design competition for the memorial, slated to be completed by 2010. No bodies will be disturbed during the process.

Mayor William D. Euille cited the contributions of freed slaves to the city's development. "A lot of homes and buildings in Alexandria were constructed by freedmen," he said, adding that many residents have told him they were surprised to hear about the cemetery. "That's what makes us unique . . . that we have a lot of history here that we're able to preserve."

The workshop will be from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, in the Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 N. Union St., Third Floor, Studio 327. The event is free.

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