Local site added to Civil Rights Network: Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial first location chosen in Virginia

Local site added to Civil Rights Network: Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial first location chosen in Virginia
Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial gate. (Photo/Steven Halperson/Tisara Photography)

By Katherine Hapgood | khapgood@alextimes.com

The work of a citizen-led effort has finally come to fruition as the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial will be dedicated as a new site to the African American Civil Rights Network on July 24. The memorial will be the first site recognized in Virginia as part of the national network.

The citizen-led crusade for “preserving, commemorating and researching” of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial was led by Lillie Franklea and Louise Massoud, who founded The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery in 1997, after archaeological remote sensing revealed the presence of more than 1,700 graves of “contrabands” and freed men, women and children in 1996, according to the Friends.

This increased attention to the cemetery was brought by improvements that were supposed to be made to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, as this remote sensing in 1996 was used prior to drawing up plans for the bridge, Eleanor Breen, the city’s archaeologist, said.

While Franklea and Massoud led the charge for proper recognition and dedication for the cemetery, the Alexandria Archaeological Commission, the nation’s oldest commission of its kind, led the initiative for the memorial to be recognized by the National Park Service as part of its African American Civil Rights Network.

“It was through the Alexandria Archaeological Commission’s leadership, and their energy, and their energy of highlighting these contributions of archaeology to African American history that really pushed the nomination forward and allowed the honor to be bestowed by the National Parks Service,” Breen said.

The application was supported by City Council and the city manager, as well as the Alexandria Black History Museum, according to Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum.

“We have wanted [the nomination] to happen for a very long period of time. … It was the dedication of the Archaeology Commission that made this a reality,” Davis said.

Louise Massoud (left) and Lillie Finklea, founder of The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetary, 2008. (Photot/Nina Tisara/Tisara Photography for Living Legends of Alexandria)

The cemetery is the burial place of at least 1,711 African Americans buried from 1864 to 1869.

Starting in May 1861, enslaved people from the South escaped to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, with upwards of 18,000 to 20,000 people coming through Alexandria. Despite the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Union refused the confederacy’s request to send the previously enslaved people back to the South, Davis said in a 2019 interview.

Stationed at Fort Monroe, Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler refused the request of the agents sent to retrieve the previously enslaved people. He argued that since the South was no longer part of the Union, as commander in war, he was able to “take the property away from [them, and] … make [the enslaved people] a contraband of war,” Davis said in the 2019 interview.

The sudden increase of Alexandria’s population in the 1860s from the escape of enslaved people made a cemetery necessary. There was inadequate healthcare, food and shelter, as well as racism and lack of opportunity — all of which contributed to the need for Alexandria to have an African American cemetery.

“Often [contrabands] arrived destitute and malnourished and some passed away, which led to the creation of this burial ground,” Breen said.

The Union hired Rev. Albert Gladwin, the Superintendent of Contraband at the time, to create an organized ledger of the cotrabands’ births, marriages and deaths. All of the 1,711 people buried in the cemetery are recorded in the ledger, while there is some speculation that there may have been more burials after the last recorded burial in 1869, Breen said.

Since the last burial in 1869, the “cemetery [became] desecrated in many different ways and essentially forgotten about, all impacted by systemic racism,” Breen said. When the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery formed, there was a gas station and an office building on top of the cemetery, which was underground and suffering from decades of neglect.

The location of each grave was identified through archaeology, and there is now a marker at the location of each grave in the cemetery, Breen said.

Through the work of genealogist Char McCargo Bah, descendants of those buried in the memorial have been and continue to be identified. Many of these descendants continue to live or work in Alexandria, as well as across the country, Davis said.

“While [the cemetery is] honoring the contraband or the escaped slaves or self-emancipating formerly enslaved people, you see the markers of descendant links at the memorial and know that there is a living family associated with that name,” Davis said. The memorial has become an honored and well known part of Alexandria, and it continues to grow through genealogical work.

“It’s a living memorial. While it honors the dead, it also honors the perseverance of the living,” Davis said.