City launches new African American Heritage Trail

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City launches new African American Heritage Trail
Pictured on the StoryMap's website: Black laborers at Alexandria, near Coal Whart, ca. 1860-1865 by Mathew Brady. (Photo/National Archives and Records Administration)
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By Lindsey Sullivan | [email protected]

Earlier this month, the City of Alexandria released a new virtual history tour that details the significance of African Americans in the city.

The self-guided tour along the waterfront highlights the history of Alexandria’s Black residents and neighborhoods from the city’s founding in 1749 through the 20th century. Stretching about a mile long and including 11 stops, the trail follows the waterfront from King Street to the corner of North Royal and Montgomery streets and takes about 45 minutes to walk.

For the past three years, the African American Heritage Waterfront Trail came together through the efforts of the African American Heritage Trail Committee. The 11-member committee included Alexandria Black History Museum Director Audrey Davis, Councilor John Chapman, Alexandria archaeologists, local historians and other community members.

“People are craving this history — they want to know it,” Davis said. “It’s a very important touchstone that you know that African Americans were contributing members of this community, even when they had no rights themselves, and that they’ve helped to build Alexandria.”

Davis said she hopes the trail will be a tool for residents to learn more about the impact of African Americans from the city’s founding and all throughout its history.

“I think it’s all now becoming more cohesive in that people are understanding it’s a bigger story,” Davis said. “American history is not seen through just one lens [anymore], it’s being seen through multi-ethnic lenses of experience and contributions to this country.”

The tour tells the history of African Americans in the city through an online program called StoryMap that users can follow along with on their phones while walking the trail. Davis said the virtual element was a part of the project’s conversation long before the COVID-19 pandemic began affecting Alexandria in the spring.

The heritage trail project grew out of conversations Davis had with City Archaeologist Eleanor Breen and others on the Alexandria Archaeology Commission who wanted to explore the history of Alexandria’s waterfront.

“We really had to think hard about, what’s the best way to present this information in this day and age?” Breen said. “And really, the story map allows [us] to tell a story that’s tied to a place and space, and we thought that was the best way.”

Others involved with the project include Benjamin Skolnik, who created the digital story map, and city activist McArthur Myers.

“We’re able to take the knowledge we have and put it out into the world, and it looks good, which for historians is sometimes the piece we struggle with,” Skolnik said.

The virtual tour includes 11 stops, starting at the foot of King Street, where African American workers were essential to the filling of the mudflats along the embankment. The trail’s second stop is the Torpedo Factory, originally the U.S. Torpedo Station, where many Black men and women worked during WWII. The trail then moves to the foot of Cameron Street, where Carlyle’s Wharf used to be in the 1800s before being paved over in later years.

The trail also moves through the city’s marina, Founders Park and the west end of the waterfront, where the city experienced industrialization in the 20th century with the help of Black workers, who earned greater employment rights during that era.

The interactive map includes historical information about Black involvement in Alexandria’s industries from its very founding, and even some information that has been left out of history textbooks, Davis said.

This discovery of the untold stories of Alexandria’s people and history, Davis said, are exactly what she and the committee were looking for when putting the project together.

Davis said this is why she has included an oral history initiative in her department at the museum to capture the untold stories that projects like the African American Heritage Trail reveal.

“Even though I’ve worked in the city for 27 years, I learn something new all the time from people and [I] find out these interesting tidbits [I] just didn’t know, but that have an impact on history,” Davis said.

The interactive online map can be found through Alexandria’s website at www.alexandriava.gov/116132.

For more information about Alexandria’s Heritage trail, go to www.alexandri-ava.gov/HeritageTrail.

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