An abandoned cemetery in south Alexandria will be made into a park commemorating the city's black community, thanks to a laborer from Alexandria who died in 1891.
The gravestone of the laborer, Abraham Hunter, was discovered by a city worker in 1985 while he was mowing the overgrown plot of land, south of Duke Street between Hooff's Run Drive and Holland Lane. An investigation by the city's archaeological department shows that the site was once a black Baptist cemetery. No other gravestones or other artifacts were found and Hunter's stone has since been taken to a warehouse.
Now, 100 years after Hunter's death, the City Council, residents and a private developer have come together to convert the cemetery and surrounding area into a park to commemorate contributions by Alexandria's black residents.
"Thanks to this one man, we will now have a park instead of buildings," said Ben Brenman of the Alexandria Archaeological Commission.
"It was a real blessing," added Harry Burke, chairman of the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, who, along with Brenman, proposed the idea for a memorial. "We wanted a memorial park, the city had a sacred piece of land and the Carr company was willing to develop it."
The Oliver Carr Co., which agreed to finance the project, is building a 76-acre, mixed-use development west of the park. Construction of the park, which will begin this year, is expected to cost $1.4 million.
Although final plans have yet to be drawn up, a task force has agreed that the nine-acre park, which is dotted with tall mature trees and a small stream on the east, will have walking and biking paths and open fields for play.
The focal point of the park will be the one-acre cemetery, which will include a memorial to the contributions of black Alexandrians. The 10-member task force, headed by Burke, is working with an art consultant to select an artist in designing the memorial.
Brenman, who is also on the task force, said he'd like to see the park enclosed in a red sandstone wall containing a carved mural representing the history and culture of blacks in Alexandria. He also said that the park may include a walking path and a contemplation area.
"Most importantly, this park should be something our people will be proud of," said Elsie V. Thomas, a local black historian on the committee. "I want to give our children a sense of pride."
Eugene Thompson, director of the Alexandria Black History Resource Center, said, "The park will fill a void of not knowing for so long about black history in Alexandria. We have a very proud history that has to be told and the city is telling it."
To learn more about the history of the cemetery, Burke said he is seeking anyone who may have memories of it. Examination of city maps and documents by the city archaeological department shows that the land was incorporated in 1885 by five men representing the Baptist Cemetery Association. No records have been found indicating how many people were actually buried on the land, but some residents remember seeing three or four grave markers on the site as late as the mid-1970s.
"We don't know exactly why the cemetery wasn't kept up," said city archaeologist Pam Cressey. "One reason may be because there was no church nearby to care for it."
Cressey said that the department is trying to determine the exact boundaries of the cemetery, but that no excavations will be done on the site and no remains will be exhumed.
"We haven't been able to find anyone with relatives that were buried there," said Burke. "We'll leave it as it is, respecting it as a hallowed ground."