By Erich Wagner (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
City councilors unanimously passed a plan for the preservation of Fort Ward Park last month, over the objections of residents and descendants in the storied West End community.
The document lays out a road map for the park, from establishing a master plan for the property to finding unmarked graves to addressing storm water runoff problems. But descendants of the historically black Fort Ward community said they were neither adequately informed of the proposals, nor allowed enough input on them.
Before city council approved the plan, members added provisions requiring the establishment of an oversight committee to serve as a watchdog for upgrades to the park, as well as setting up a city council work session to discuss how city staff can better collaborate with residents as the plan moves forward.
But for descendants of the Fort Ward community, the plan feels like the latest slight to a group of residents who has been trodden upon by City Hall for decades. The community had thrived since its inception in the 1870s, but city officials forced residents from their land to reconstruct the Civil War-era fort that once stood at the site in preparation for the centennial commemoration of the conflict.
“Mr. P.B. Hall, public works director, reports that there are several graves located within the fort site,” wrote then-City Manager E.G. Heatwole in 1960. “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.”
Some of those same families had to pick up and move once more when city officials chose their neighborhood to be the site of T.C. Williams in the 1960s. Adrienne Washington, president of the Fort Ward and Seminary African-American Descendants Society, said residents wanted to put past indignities behind them when officials began crafting the new plan.
“We didn’t want to rehash all of the mistakes that have been made, even though we could have,” she said. “We wanted to hopefully move forward on a new page whereby we will be heard and will be worked with. We want to work with them to make sure Fort Ward becomes the place it could be, but there’s a lot of distrust to overcome.
“That’s why, if we had our druthers, the plan would have been held up a little longer until the [oversight] committee and the work session is set up.”
Washington said residents felt like their concerns — first and foremost: find, mark and preserve the graves — were not taken seriously by preservation staff.
“We don’t feel it adequately deals with, addresses or provides remedies for the situation with the unknown graves or the situation with the continued storm water runoff, which erodes some of the graves there already,” she said. “And there are questions about how a development, a historical interpretive plan, will be developed going forward, given that it has been done without our collaboration in the past and which is not our fault at all.”
Although residents are encouraged by city council taking a more active role in the issues surrounding Fort Ward, Seminary Civic Association President Frances Terrell said she fears waiting to hold a work session will embolden staff, rather than rein them in.
“Our biggest concern once council went ahead and passed the management plan is that the city would go ahead and proceed with the changes they wanted to make without really talking to us,” she said.
Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, said the plan provides the first set of preservation protections for the park. He acknowledged the struggle to find common ground with the descendant groups, but said city staff must prioritize because of limited funding for grave discovery.
“It’s a complex process, and we’re trying to do it without destroying the other features of the park as well, but we’ve just about used all the money that’s been allocated,” Mallamo said. “We’ve requested money in past fiscal years, but that has not been forthcoming, so we have developed a process so that in the future, as the technology improves or funding becomes available, we know the sites we’ll look at and, in the meantime, they’re protected.”
City Councilor John Chapman said the biggest priority for the city must be better communication and collaboration with the descendant groups.
“[The descendants] don’t necessarily feel like there’s been a good streak of communicating with city staff,” he said. “How do they get communications from staff? When? And who should the communication go to?
“There’s a lot of mistrust. And some times, it’s just a question of, ‘Will the city deliver on what it says?’ Because of all of these different examples in the past, a lot of that comes into play in terms of looking to work together in the future.”
On the issue of finding the unmarked graves, Chapman said he thinks both sides simply have different perspectives, but the same overall goal.
“I think [in the plan], staff kind of looked at it systematically: ‘What can we do within our budget? What can we get our hands on in the next number of years?’” he said. “It’s just a systematic plan within their scale and funding. While that doesn’t necessarily differ, I think the descendants are just focused on the goal, which is to make sure we’re using best practices and ensuring 100 percent, without a doubt, every grave is found.”
Chapman said city staff will propose a framework and time frame for the new committee and the proposed work session later this month. Washington said that if councilors give the new committee “some teeth” and remain involved in the process going forward, the descendants might finally see positive movement in the effort to preserve Fort Ward.
“In the previous century, people weren’t as sensitive and elected officials were not as sensitive to certain groups, particularly African-Americans,” Washington said. “But here, in the 21st century, this group [of councilors] should be — and I do believe is — more sensitive. If it takes a while to get it right we’ll do that.
“But right now, it’s not right.”