Frances Terrell walks past her ancestors’ gravestones at the edge of Alexandria’s neglected Fort Ward Park. She stops and points to a place in the grass where she says she thinks her great-grandparents Daniel and Alice Simms are buried. The stone markers are gone from their graves and many others. “We are really, really concerned about what happens to this cemetery. This was — is — our family,” said Terrell, 68. “Our ancestors are here. It hurts.” These unmarked graves are remnants of a history Terrell said has been too long forgotten. Located in Alexandria’s West End, 3 1/2 miles from City Hall downtown, Fort Ward Park is at the heart of a debate about how best to honor the city’s African American history. Black descendants of a community that thrived on that land for a century after the Civil War want to be sure their history is included in the park’s renovation for the war’s 150th anniversary this year. The City Council is working to right past wrongs but struggling to find the money. Union troops built Fort Ward to defend Washington in 1861. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Union abandoned the fort and freed African Americans settled on the land. They built homes, a school and a church that endured for a century in a community they called Seminary, after the nearby Virginia Theological Seminary, which to this day remains a teaching facility of the Episcopal Church.
In the early 1960s, Alexandria bought the African Americans’ properties for next to nothing or condemned the places for not having indoor plumbing as part of an urban renewal program, forcing the people off their land. Fort Ward Park was established then. City workers used the park to re-create the fort’s dirt ramparts, or earthworks, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. But after that, the cemetery was never adequately maintained.
Terrell said she was horrified to find her ancestors’ cemetery being used as a dog park. She still lives in Alexandria, as do many other descendants of the Seminary community. It took a year of residents’ complaints before the city removed heavy trucks and trash bins parked near known graves in a city maintenance yard in Fort Ward Park. A greenhouse in the park could be sitting on more graves. Storm water has led to the desecration of other burial sites.
“The city didn’t care . . . the interest just wasn’t there,” Terrell said. “If it had been another cemetery, they’d be out there in a month’s time.”
Twenty-two unmarked graves were found this winter by archaeologists in the maintenance yard on the west side of the park, just outside the fenced Oakland Baptist Church cemetery.
“We want our heritage back,” said Adrienne Washington, 61, whose ancestors helped build the Seminary neighborhood. “We worked the land. We love the land. We are buried on the land.”
Restoring their heritage, identifying unmarked graves and renovating the park could cost more than $2 million, city officials said. No money was set aside for the park in City Manager James K. Hartmann’s fiscal 2012 budget.
Alexandria City Council members agree that $75,000 for the second stage of archaeological work should be included in the fiscal 2012 budget. The council also directed city staff to look at moving the park to the top of a list of projects to receive some of the city’s designated storm water funds to stop erosion in the cemetery and other areas.
The council must operate under the city’s “fiscal realities,” which include a crowded school system, costly employee pensions and pressing transportation needs, said council member Rob Krupicka (D). The budget is expected to be finalized in May, with a business tax increase under consideration.
“Seventy-five thousand dollars doesn’t move the ball forward very far,” said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley (D), who used to picnic in the park as a child and called recent revelations about its neglect “a real eye-opener.” Donley said reprioritizing storm water funds “makes a substantial investment” and “gets us to the point to start other improvements in the event of the sesquicentennial.”
In addition to the 22 grave sites found during the first stage of the archaeological study, which covered 20 percent of the park last year, archaeologists found the footprint of the school, which was built in 1898. They also found evidence of homes, privies and personal artifacts — a Civil War-era belt buckle and even a 1930s windup toy.
The $75,000 would fund the next portion of the study, which would continue to locate graves and other historical markers in the rest of the park.
Money for the study also could match funds required for a federal grant the city was awarded. The grant would pay for an interpretive plan, proper fencing and markers for the newly identified graves, among other upgrades, said Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria.
“What the city knew and when they knew, it wasn’t appreciated to the level of seriousness we are taking it today,” Mallamo said. “In many ways, we are trying to correct the mistakes of the past here.”
A Fort Ward stakeholders group worked for a year to compile a 60-page report full of renovation recommendations for the park while focusing on the history of not only the Civil War, but also the people who live there.
“As you learn about the families who are buried there, you do put context on the history of the fort,” said Thomas Fulton, former chairman of the stakeholders group.
The group’s priorities include grave location, storm water repairs, a management plan and designation of the group to oversee the restoration. Fulton estimated the four items would cost $300,000.
City officials say they think the cost could be much higher.
Once the graves are marked, Alexandria can plan around them to fix the storm water runoff, which could cost up to $750,000, said Rich Baier, the city’s chief of transportation and environmental services.
A master plan for the park that would identify all of the recreational and historic features could cost $150,000, said James Spengler, director of the Alexandria recreation and parks department.
Council member Alicia Hughes (I) thinks restoration of the park must be a priority and wants to put $300,000 in the budget to fund the stakeholder group’s four priorities.
“Once you discover things are wrong . . . that knowledge is an obligation to fix it, especially when it exists for groups of people who have traditionally not been treated well throughout the course of history,” she said. “It takes special care to repair those things. We know about it now. We fix it now. Certain things you don’t have questions about, you just write the check.”
Elizabeth Douglas, who says she is about 89 years old, attended grammar school “up the fort.” She remembers the red mud that was King Street and how she admired the families in the area who worked at the seminary and Episcopal High School.
“It was nothing in the world but country, and everybody had cattle,” she said. “They had hogs and horse-and-buggies, and then they had wagons.”
She remembers playing among the gravestones in Clara Adams’s back yard. The Adams family gave some of its land for the school, close to where she was buried in 1952. Her grave and her husband’s unmarked grave are in the maintenance yard.
Douglas said she went to City Hall several times in the early 1960s to complain that gravestones were being stolen.
“As far as I can count, this community has been upset by the city three times,” Douglas said. The city took land from her friends and neighbors through the years, not only to build Fort Ward Park, but also to construct T.C. Williams High School nearby and to pave and widen King Street, she said.
A few residents fought for more money when the city took their land, but the civil rights movement was just beginning. Seminary was the only African American community in West End at that time.
“Whatever government said, do you think we were going to fight against it?” Terrell said. “It was a different era.”
Pam Cressey, the city’s archaeologist, hopes to right past wrongs. “The purpose of our inquiry is to find out what really did happen and put the story all together so that the families and their histories and traditions can be returned,” she said.
Over the past two years, Washington, chairwoman of the Fort Ward descendants group and a Washington Times reporter, has been steadily working toward that goal.
Washington, whose grandparents’ address is now that of T.C. Williams High, worked with some community members and a Howard University student to create six signs that will be placed around the fort. They will tell park visitors about the black Union troops, the cemetery and the accomplishments of the early Seminary community. But she wants more.
“I can’t tell you what it does to you to realize your ancestors are not honored or are being marginalized,” Washington said, tearing up. She said the $300,000 requested by the stakeholder group “is not a high price to pay” to properly start the 35-acre park’s restoration.
One recent afternoon, she and Terrell stood on a bridge over an earthen wall on the west side of the park. They looked down at recently identified plots that belonged to a family named Jackson. The earthwork was covered in periwinkle and daffodil blooms that weren’t hard to imagine in gardens planted by their kin 100 years ago.