When the cotton-candy-colored sky faded to black above the old cemetery, they started marching.
Earlier that Friday evening, the Rev. Joseph Thompson, director of multicultural ministries at the Virginia Theological Seminary, had reminded the crowd — which included faith leaders, politicians, historians, students, couples and families — why they were gathered.
“It’s all so we can get an idea, some insight into what it must have been like to march for days and weeks on end,” Thompson said. “We must raise awareness."
Thompson was referring to a painful slice of history that, until recently, was known only to scholars: the Slave Trail of Tears in which about a million enslaved people were forced to walk from the Upper South — Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky — to labor on plantations in the Deep South. The migration, which took place between 1810 and 1865, reshaped the country, won slave traders immense fortunes and ripped apart countless families.
The event Friday, organized by the Episcopal seminary in collaboration with the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, was meant to honor the enslaved marchers. It was also timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in North America — and it kicked off a weekend of church-organized ceremonies that will all take place in sites located along the path enslaved marchers traveled, what is today U.S. Route 50 and U.S. Route 11.
Speakers at the historic cemetery, where former slaves are buried, evoked the enslaved people’s pain through prayer, poetry and song. Marchers walked up to 10 hours a day — covering about 20 miles — in all kinds of weather, and many died along the way from hunger, thirst, exhaustion or disease.
One speaker gripped his throat with both hands as he exhorted the audience to imagine the horror of a slave collar.
“We march, remembering the reality that the vestiges of slavery we thought had long ago passed away are present and with us each and every day,” said the Rev. Kim Coleman, the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Arlington.
The Slave Trail of Tears was so seminal that it leeched through to the nation’s language. The phrase “sold down the river” stems from that march, as does the notion of a “chain gang." As they marched, enslaved men and boys walked with their wrists handcuffed together. Women and girls followed, tied with ropes.
Yet Americans forgot, or chose to forget, said Jacqueline Copeland, the executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.
“This history has been in the shadows; it hasn’t seen the light of day because people don’t want to acknowledge what happened in our slave past,” Copeland said.
Melissa Hays-Smith, a deacon for the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, decided a few months ago that she had to fight the fading of that history. She began reaching out to churches across the diocese to gauge their interest in commemorating the enslaved people’s march.
“I think the time is right for this,” Hays-Smith said. “In our diocese, we’ve been preparing people to feel strong and empowered to address racial injustice — and then we see injustice in our world and it’s really being highlighted politically.”
Alexandria was the perfect place to start, Hays-Smith said, because it’s where most enslaved marchers began their journeys. Specifically, they started walking at 1315 Duke St., the yellow Alexandria townhouse that Isaac Franklin and John Armfield bought and converted to a “slave pen" in 1828.
The pair went on to become the most successful slave traders in the pre-Civil War United States, shipping an estimated 25,000 enslaved people south. Franklin and Armfield, whom Smithsonian Magazine dubbed the “undisputed tycoons” of the domestic slave trade, made more money and tore apart more families than almost anyone else.
“We cannot be forgetting these atrocities,” Thompson said.
The Friday night marchers’ journey would end at the former slave pen, today a museum. But it began with song: As the crowd exited the graveyard, one woman remained behind, trilling a hymn into the cooling late-August air.
In my trials, Lord, walk with me;
when my heart is almost breaking,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
Many continued humming the chorus to themselves — though otherwise remaining silent out of respect — as they spilled into the dusky streets. A police car and an officer on a motorcycle guided the procession through intersections.
The blue-and-red police lights painted faces and windows in carnival colors as passersby stared and whispered. Stopped traffic formed lines that stretched for blocks. No one honked.
The marchers, walking mostly in twos, passed restaurants, banks, churches. Some establishments suggested the details of lives enslaved people never got to lead: here an elementary school, there a bridal boutique, across the street a funeral home.
On the Slave Trail of Tears, those who died were often left by the roadside. Franklin once stuffed enslaved people’s corpses in a bayou.
This kind of behavior is partly why it was near-impossible for families separated during the march to find each other after Emancipation — not that they didn’t try. Hundreds of thousands posted aching messages in newspapers: “Can anyone inform me of the whereabouts of [my son]?” asked Hannah Cole of Alexandria in a June 1865 note. “I have not seen him for ten years. ... I desire to find him so much.”
Over 150 years later, Eve Yagel, 54, grabbed her son’s jacket sleeve and pulled him closer to her as they marched.
The ceremony is the first “real thing” the Yagels, who are white, have done in Alexandria, Eve Yagel said. The family moved to the area about two weeks ago from rural Nelson County, Va., so William Yagel, 44, could fulfill his “calling from God” by studying at the Virginia Theological Seminary.
William Yagel said a reenactment march like this might have taken place in Nelson, a county of about 15,000 that he described as mostly white and “deeply red.” But it would not have been well attended or well understood, he said.
“So much of our history is viewed through the lens of White America, and Tye River is typical of that,” William Yagel said about the community from where he moved.
Will Yagel, 16, said he always knew his family was unusually liberal and accepting for the area. He and his brother, 14-year-old Henry Yagel, had to seek out “small pockets of like-minded people” at school, he said.
A few months before the Yagels moved, someone dropped threatening notes purporting to be from the Ku Klux Klan into mailboxes in front of black households, Will Yagel said. The “scare” seemed emblematic of a wave of “terrible events” happening across the country right now, he said.
In part, that’s what he thought about as he marched Friday.
“I’m glad to be gone, but as a white male, I wasn’t facing the brunt of it," Will Yagel said. “So I wish a lot of those people, the students of color, they could be here, too."