Black History Museum’s Audrey Davis discusses “Contrabands” in Alexandria

Black History Museum’s Audrey Davis discusses “Contrabands” in Alexandria
“The Path of Thorns and Roses” by sculptor Mario Chiodo at the Contrabands and Freedmen Memorial Cemetery. (Photo Credit: Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Walking past the Mobil gas station on South Washington Street in the 1990s, it would have been difficult to imagine the history that sat just beneath the surface of the concrete. But fast forward to 2014 when the Contrabands and Freedmen Memorial Cemetery officially opened, and a significant chapter in Alexandria’s Civil War history, while literally still under- neath the surface, had been un- earthed.

Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, talked about the importance of contrabands and the cemetery during a special event at the Athenaeum on Feb. 21.

During the Civil War, as Union forces marched south, slaves started fleeing to Union-controlled strongholds in hopes of finding asylum and, eventually, freedom.

“It’s a universal truth that everyone wants a better life for themselves, for their family,” Davis said. “The right to live free, the right to die free. And this is what you’re seeing in the contrabands and this is truly an American story.”

These slaves were classified as “contraband of war,” property that had been taken by the Union for the war effort. According to Davis, the history of contrabands started not too far from Alexandria.

Contrabands at the Prince Street barracks. Photo/Office of Historic Alexandria

In May 1861, three slaves, fearing they would be shipped to the Carolinas, fled to the nearby Union-controlled Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.

“The three men took a risk,” Davis said. “They got in a rowboat and they rowed over to Fort Monroe hoping to find asylum there. They had no idea what would happen to them.”

The slaves’ masters sent agents to Fort Monroe to retrieve the three escaped slaves, but General Benjamin Franklin Butler refused them, despite the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which stated any escaped slave must be returned to the given master upon capture.

“He said, ‘No, you are saying you’re not a part of this country anymore. And if you are not part of this country, I am going to keep your property, and as a commander in war I have a right to do that and to take that property away from you if it’s going to be used against me, so I’m going to make them contraband of war,’” Davis said.

By the Sunday after Butler’s decision, eight more escaped slaves had turned up at Fort Monroe. By Monday, another 20 had travelled to Monroe. By the end of May, nearly 500 contrabands were at Fort Monroe, earning it the moniker “Freedom’s Fortress.”

Contrabands started to flood Union-controlled cities and territories, including Alexandria. According to Davis, an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 contrabands came through Alexandria, but the real number is likely much higher.

For contrabands, the situation represented hope for the future, something not many slaves thought they would have.

“If you could get to a Union stronghold, you had a chance to live on your own, to work for a wage and if the Union won the war, you could be free,” Davis said.

Many contrabands in Alexandria did earn a wage and lived out from under the thumb of their masters, but life was still tenuous. The Union army was unprepared to take care of a massive number of refugees. As a result, there was inadequate food and housing, Davis said.

“People were dying in the streets,” Davis said. “They literally didn’t have blankets to cover them or clothes to cover them. … They were also dealing with doctors that had brilliant ideas like, ‘Let’s take all the contraband orphan children and have them working at the small pox hospital be- cause nothing really matters if something happens to them.’”

Contrabands working on the U.S. Military Railroad Station in Alexan- dria during the Civil War. Photo/Office of Historic Alexandria

In 1864, the Union army built a barracks and the L’Ouverture Hospital. Harriet Jacobs and Julia Wilbur, pivotal figures in African American history, were also working in Alexandria as aid workers, fighting to improve the conditions of contrabands.

“They had to fight stuff like that all the time: sexism, misogyny, ill treatment of the contraband, especially from the people who were supposed to be taking care of them,” Davis said.

The Union also hired Reverend Albert Gladwin to create an organized ledger of contra- bands’ births, marriages and, primarily, deaths. The register is now kept at the Library of Virginia and has been an invaluable tool for historians.

The Contrabands and Freedmen Memorial Cemetery stands as a testament to those lives, but, according to Davis, the process of getting that history recognized was a challenge.

“It took many years and two really wonderful women here in Alexandria – Lillie Finklea and Louise Massoud – to sort of reawaken interest in the contraband cemetery,” Davis said.

After the war, the family to whom the cemetery land originally belonged returned to Alexandria. The family allowed people to go into the cemetery and take out clay to make bricks. Soon skeletons were exposed, while coffins stuck out of graves like cannons.

In 1917, the then owners, the Catholic archdiocese of Richmond, sold the land with two provisions: the land would never be used to serve alcohol and there would never be a gas station on the site. According to Davis, the first building to go up was a gas station. The site still appeared on city maps as a black cemetery until 1948.

Beginning in the late 2000s and over the course of 10 years, Finklea and Massoud fought to get the cemetery memorialized in history.

“It was sad though because they would put up a sign or have flowers or wreaths that were almost always vandalized, ripped up or thrown away,” Davis said. “But they continued persevering every single year.”

In 2007, the city, now behind Finklea and Massoud, purchased the gas station and office building that sat on the site and demolished them.

There was a short memorial ceremony on May 12, 2007, prior to more extended ar- chaeological digs. More than 1,800 burials were discovered at the site, more than half of which were children under the age of 16. By 2014, more than 600 grave shafts had been discovered.

The Contrabands and Freedmen’s Memorial Cemetery officially opened on Sept. 6, 2014. Finklea and Massoud were the first to enter the cemetery. Council members, Alexandrians and descendants of contrabands also attended the opening.

“We wanted to honor those people who risked everything for freedom but did not live long in it,” Davis said.

“The Path of Thorns and Roses,” the sculpture by Mario Chiodo that stands in the cemetery, represents the significance of the site itself, Davis said.

“It’s about the burden and the power of grief, but the ability to heal and find hope eventually,” Davis said.

In closing her talk, Davis merged the personal, political and professional, quoting her great, great grandfather who was one of the original contrabands who lived and worked at Fort Monroe: “We want to get wisdom. That is all we need. Let us get that and we are made for time and eternity.”