By Derrick Perkins (File photo)
First City Hall came for their land. Now descendants of the black community that once called Fort Ward home worry officials are going after their history.
The latest controversy erupted earlier this month when descendants learned of a forthcoming document detailing the abandoned fort’s history. Commissioned by the city and crafted by Krystyn Moon, director of American studies at the University of Mary Washington, “Finding the Fort” focuses on the black community that sprung up in the West End after the Civil War.
But the announcement of the report’s public release — originally scheduled for November 16 — surprised the residents whose ancestors served as the study’s topic. They had no idea it was in the works, said Adrienne Washington, president of the Fort Ward and Seminary African American Descendants Society.
For the past several years, Washington’s organization has worked alongside other groups and city officials to piece together the area’s history, particularly the legacy of the men and women who made their home at Fort Ward after the soldiers left.
“We have had an agreement, or we thought we had an agreement,” Washington said. “We thought we were working together on this thing and turns out that maybe we weren’t.”
She was more pointed in a letter to Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria.
“Here is another example of how bad things continue to be done ‘to us’ and not ‘with us’ or ‘for us’ for more than a half a century at ‘The Fort,’” Washington wrote after learning about the draft history report. “[The] final insult comes as the city has broken its verbal and written covenant to work in partnership with Fort Ward descendants to ‘tell our story,’ not theirs.”
A PAINFUL PAST
It’s hard for descendants of Fort Ward, like Frances Terrell, to look at the most recent dispute without remembering past grievances.
After all, the neighborhood community thrived after its founding in the 1870s. By 1898, the area boasted a church — now the Oakland Baptist Church — and would soon have a school.
But that changed with the approach of the Civil War’s centennial anniversary. Terrell was a child when city officials decided to turn the land into a museum and park using eminent domain.
“Our relatives — the Adams, the Caseys, the Jacksons, the Cravens — they were quite happy and quite content up there,” Terrell said. “For the centennial for the Civil War, [the city] decided they wanted to commemorate the area — what is now the park — so we had to move out.”
Officials opened the partially reconstructed fort and surrounding park in 1964. For their work, the city was one of six municipalities to earn special recognition from the National Civil War Centennial Commission.
Though the original inhabitants found new homes, they left a legacy in Fort Ward: artifacts, foundations and graves. Archeologists have rediscovered 43 graves — many unmarked — in four separate burial grounds in the park.
When Terrell and her neighbors were forced from their land, though, city officials knew of the burial grounds. Then City Manager E.G. Heatwole addressed the plots in a letter written in 1960.
“Mr. P.B. Hall, public works director, reports that there are several graves located within the fort site,” Heatwole wrote. “It is not believed that they have any relationship with activities of the Fort Ward during 1861-1865. Also it is questioned as to whether there are bodies still buried there. If possible, we would like to have the area cleared.”
The callousness with which their ancestors were treated — one of the burial grounds later became a city maintenance yard — remains a sore spot for the community’s descendants.
Getting left out of the loop on Moon’s work is just another reminder of all the old pain, Terrell said.
“This time we were saying, ‘Finally, finally, something positive was going to come out of these meetings with the city,’” she said. “We were going to have our history told, and we were going to be part of it. We were going to make sure it was our history that was going to be reflected, and then when it comes time to put a draft report out to the public … we’re excluded.
“… Been there, done that.”
SAME OLD STORY
Mallamo admits that not including the descendants of Fort Ward earlier was a mistake.
But he stands by Moon’s work. Though the professor referred to the oral histories of the community’s descendants, much of her report — which remains under wraps — is based on records.
“[It is] an archival document, not a document on memories, family stories or anything like this,” Mallamo said. “This is a document that basically talks about records — finding all of the deeds, finding all of the birth and death records, church records that exist — so we have a proper chain of ownership on the pieces of the property.”
While he’s arranging to have the descendants look over Moon’s findings, Mallamo acknowledges that he can’t agree to all of their demands.
“Very frankly, we had talked with the group a couple of years ago about establishing an agreement between the city and [the Fort Ward and Seminary African American Descendants Society], and some of the requests we were not able to accommodate,” he said.
The major sticking point, Mallamo said, is that descendants want final say over how their information — their history — is used. He said that’s an impossible compromise for the city to make.
“It’s not just a Fort Ward issue; we’re doing research on a number of different subjects, and we work with the community to do that,” Mallamo said. “Once it goes into city files, it’s city information.”
Washington, though, remains wary of letting the city have the final say on her ancestors, their lives and — particularly — the circumstances that led to them leaving Fort Ward. She worries the community will be presented as a group of squatters and the city given a pass for removing them.
“It could be taken out of context. It could be erroneous. It could make it seem that the city is not as culpable to what has happened to our community as they have been,” Washington said. “If you look at the records, the way they went about confiscating the land for the park in the beginning, it was not a pleasant process for the African-American families.”