Alexandria cemetery research links families

An artist's rendering shows what the memorial at the Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery, dedicated to the 1,800 people buried there, is planned to look like.
An artist's rendering shows what the memorial at the Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery, dedicated to the 1,800 people buried there, is planned to look like. (Courtesy Of The City Of Alexandria)
By Christy Goodman
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Charlene Napper knew she had family in the Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery in Alexandria, but she didn't know to what degree.

Her mother knew her great-grandmother had been a freed slave. Napper and her mother, Dorothy Taylor, 96, have been in Alexandria all their lives.

"We are truly true natives of Alexandria," said Napper, 77, who said her ancestors arrived on the first slave ships to reach the Alexandria shore. "When they freed the slaves, we were the only ones who didn't have the sense to leave," she said.

The family met genealogist Char McCargo Bah, who was asked in 2008 to find descendants of the 1,800 freed and escaped slaves buried at the cemetery from 1864 to 1869. Bah used a record of deaths made at the time by the Rev. Albert Gladwin, Alexandria's superintendent of contrabands, which is what escaped slaves were considered.

"She really opened our eyes to our heritage," Napper said of Bah.

On Saturday, the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to establish the remaining three acres of the Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery as a park. It also approved preliminary designs for a cemetery memorial.

The original cemetery was disturbed by brick makers digging for clay in the 19th century. Roads came through and desecrated more of it in the 20th century, and a gas station was built on a portion at Washington and Church streets.

The city bought the land and rededicated it in 2007. Final plans for the memorial are being determined, but they will include marking graves found through archaeological digs. Walls will explain the history of the area and list the names, ages and causes of death of the 1,800 people. Descendants will also be noted.

So far, Bah said, she has found 90 families, many of whom are connected to several descendents. "Many people who have been in Alexandria a long time, they have married into families that have people buried there as well," she said.

Using Gladwin's records, Bah started with unusual last names, such as Drayton, Terrell or Haskins. She contacted local African American civic associations and alumni from Parker-Gray High School, the city's all-black high school during segregation, to help locate people with the same last names. After an interview, she would conduct research using tips the person had given her and try to connect the subject to the people on the Gladwin list. Checking census records, city directories, legal documents and Virginia archives, Bah said, she could usually tell within a month if she had found a descendant.

"If you don't get a person coming into this world, you can get them going out," said Bah, who works as a policy writer for the federal government.

She conducts quarterly lectures at the Alexandria Black History Museum and has been able to make connections through those who attend, something she said many African Americans had not thought was possible.

"You can now find relatives that participated in history that you didn't know had any other role than being a slave," Bah said.

Caroline McRae's interest was piqued by a family heirloom, a Bible that dated back to 1868. The names listed on the marriage page didn't match any on the Gladwin record, Bah said, but she agreed to do research after McRae asked for her help. McRae, born and reared in Alexandria, said she never thought she was a descendant of someone buried in Freedmen's Cemetery, but she was curious about the names in the Bible.

With Bah's help, McRae found out that she not only has a host of family members buried at the cemetery but that some of her people were freed before 1865.

"It is still a great feeling to know I have ancestors connected to that cemetery," said McRae, 71, who also learned that her family members have belonged to her church, Roberts Memorial United Methodist, for nearly 200 years. "It is just amazing how that project came into being."

Napper said she is grateful for those who worked so hard to save the cemetery and create the memorial.

"We are happy to have some remembrance of our foreparents," she said.

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