Alexandria, a destination for freed slaves


Not long after many of Alexandrias residents fled the coming Union occupation, the city saw an influx of recently freed slaves pursuing safety and a chance at a new life. 

Alexandrias slaves and freedmen were joined by a growing legion of refugees seeking asylum behind Union lines. They were deemed contraband by military authorities, a legal designation to deny former masters requests to have them returned. 

By classifying them as a contraband of war its still a sensitive issue as it implies a property state, but it was a way for the Union army to provide protection for them, said Amy Bertsch of the Office of Historic Alexandria. 

Many blacks in Civil War Alexandria came from nearby counties. The city, well known as a slave-trading hub before the war, became a destination for contrabands. As the war carried on, the population swelled with soldiers and free blacks. For many the price of freedom became illness and squalor.

Its crowded with soldiers and then these new residents coming in and the conditions were not great, Bertsch said. A lot of people became ill from disease. They lacked shelter and food, and a lot of them died and thats when they established Freedmans Cemetery.

The grassy plot of land bordering South Washington Street would go on to hold more than 1,700 bodies, a great many of them children, according to Audrey Davis of Alexandrias Black History Museum. 

People are living in shantytowns, putting up housing wherever they are, certainly not in the desirable areas of the town, she said. People were making it up as they went along. There were no rules. This had never happened before. They were trying to survive.

Some found employment with the military government, others were left to survive on their wits, Davis said. While Union authorities provided some services, there remained barriers. Blacks, including soldiers, received medical care at a separate and nowhere near equal hospital. 

Whether enslaved or free, life for blacks before and after the Civil War was hard, Davis said. They suffered from malnutrition and took physically demanding jobs to support themselves and their families.

Anyway you look at it, it was a very tough life, Davis said. It was a struggle, certainly if you were enslaved, but also if you were freed you were struggling to be able to find work to support yourself. If you were freed there might be a member of the family not freed and you were working to raise money to buy their freedom.

Yet the hope of freedom, never guaranteed, was enough to make occupied Alexandria a beacon. From the shantytowns, contrabands would head farther north, some as far as Canada. Others would stay and start new lives in Alexandria. 

Theyre trying to fit in, theyre forming little neighborhoods and enclaves, their own societies and in the latter part of the 19th century you get fraternal organizations, Davis said. You see them developing and creating their own society. Things are still going to be segregated and remain segregated for a long, long time.

The changes wrought by the newcomers still echo in Alexandria today. The Shiloh Baptist church traces its roots to the early religious ceremonies held by recently freed slaves following the wars start, for instance. 

But in other ways the city is just beginning to explore the black experience before and after the war. Freedmans Cemetery, allowed to lie fallow for decades before becoming the site of a gas station and office building, has only recently returned to the public eye as sacred ground. Another postwar burial site, near a black enclave that sprung up beside Fort Ward, has seen city recognition after years of neglect. 

Davis hopes the sesquicentennial celebration of the war will encourage residents to delve further into the role blacks played in Alexandrias history. 

Were really seeing this interest in, and protection of, African-American history, the acknowledgement of the people early on to set the foundation for achievement, she said. Without the Edmondson sisters, without the freedmen people you couldnt have Charles Houston. His achievements came from the hard work and the labor of previous generations.