Uncovering buried history at Fort Ward Park

Uncovering buried history at Fort Ward Park
Fort Ward was the fifth largest fort Union forces built to help defend Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. (Photo/Glenn Eugster)

By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

Glenn Eugster’s first introduction to Fort Ward Park occurred at 5 a.m. when he awoke one morning in 2006 to shrill beeping sounds outside his window.

He peered outside and, upon further investigation, learned that the noises were coming from city maintenance vehicles. Over the next few weeks, Eugster noticed a number of garbage dumpsters and solid waste transfer trucks that would lift the dumpsters in the air, empty them and cart them away without the special use permits necessary to do so.

“It was everything from yard waste to garbage from city hall,” Eugster said. “ … It became a catchall for all kinds of things.”

Eusgter developed a deep curiosity about the place that served as a hosting site for these city trucks, ultimately leading to his discovery of the rich history behind Fort Ward Park, a former Union Army installation built in 1861 during the Civil War.

“When I started to poke around in the maintenance yard, because the gate was often unlocked, I noticed graves out there surrounded by all kinds of debris,” Eugster said, noting that two of the graves belonged to Clara Shorts Adams, who was very prominent in the formation of the Oakland Baptist Church, and her husband Robert Adams. “I thought, ‘Holy Cow, ‘what is this?’”

The marked grave of Clara Adams is surrounded by several other unmarked graves, one of which is likely her husband, Robert. (Photo/Glenn Eugster)

For one, it was the tangible sign that a vibrant community of freed Black people had existed there after settling in the area around 1865, once the war ended and the Union abandoned the fort. The community was called Seminary, located near the Virginia Theological Seminary that is still active today.

The city of Alexandria bought the properties in the early 1960s, renamed the area Fort Ward Park and forced many existing residents out of their homes.

This newfound awareness of the fort’s layered history both angered and emboldened Eugster, who subsequently joined forces with several neighbors and the Fort Ward Museum to brainstorm ways to protect, preserve and, most importantly, respect the park.

“History is about the living and the dead. I think Alexandria tries to do a really good job with the living piece, but somebody needs to speak for the dead,” Eugster, who currently manages The Fort Ward Observer Facebook page, said.

Following many community discussions, letters to council and even an article in the Washington Post, the city eventually authorized the formation of a citizen’s ad hoc committee on Fort Ward wherein members created and implemented a management plan for the park.

Tom Fulton, chair of the ad hoc committee at the time, said the process was very public.

“Our meetings were open, advertised. I asked that the city put on the website everything we generated, and people attended. A response to the plan naturally evolved out of the Q and As and the interests of the individuals involved,” Fulton said.

The result was a robust management plan that called for a four-agency memorandum of understanding which required periodic communication between the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, the Office of Historic Alexandria, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services and the Department of General Services when an issue fell outside the scope of any one agency’s jurisdiction.

“This deniability thing of, ‘Well I can’t, that’s not me’ — no, this park is one park, it’s owned by the city, so getting somebody to say, ‘Not mine’ is not the answer,” Fulton said.

Fulton said the hope was that this MOU would eliminate the wild goose chase that ensued whenever residents contacted a department to resolve problems at Fort Ward and were told that a particular department could only help with certain aspects.

Several years later, progress has been made and Fort Ward Park doesn’t look the way it did when Eugster first saw it in 2006, but residents and descendants of the area’s Black community are arguing that the fight to preserve the park is nowhere near over.

According to Eugster, a number of issues remain unresolved within the park. Excessive stormwater has led to the deterioration of many gravesites. Also, the city recently removed a temporary wood and rope barrier meant to provide protection for the burial site of an unknown person.

City archeologists unearthed a damaged coffin beneath the trail leading up to the city maintenance yard in 2012. (Photo/Glenn Eugster)

Other unmarked graves have been found within Fort Ward Park, too, including an unidentified coffin underneath the maintenance yard in April 2012. Former city archeologist Pamela Cressey said that the grave was likely cut by the park road post-1980.

“Unfortunately, most of the coffin and all traces of human remains were destroyed at some point in the past. All that remains today is two thirds of the bottom of the coffin. The head and shoulder area of the bottom of the coffin is completely missing,” Cressey told the Fort Ward Observer at the time.

Fulton said that residents now are calling for the city to do more to honor these unmarked graves. The Seminary Hill Association, on which he serves as vice president, has recently begun engaging in renewed conversations about how to address the “increasing concern in the community” regarding the protection of Fort Ward Park, Fulton said.

For Eugster, the issue isn’t so much a legal imperative as it is a moral one.

“Issues come up here about the legality of, ‘Why can’t we put something on top of a grave? It’s legal to do so,’” Eugster said. “But when you put faces on some of these issues, especially the graves, it’s not a matter of whether [something] can go where they’re proposing it; it’s a matter of doing it right and making sure you’re not further burying other graves.”

The city maintains that efforts are underway to preserve the park and provide proper, respectful upkeep.

RPCA Natural Resources Division Chief Bob Williams said that the city’s upcoming maintenance efforts involve regular scheduled upkeep of the grassy areas around the park and regular communication with the Fort Ward Museum about future projects that will take place on Fort Ward grounds. “There are certain standards to be addressed because of the historic nature of the park, so we coordinate any maintenance activities with [them],” Williams said.

The city recently worked in collaboration with the Office of Historic Alexandria to plant more than 75 trees in the park as a way to address the current trees’ declining health and encourage plant diversity. Together, they identified appropriate areas to plant that did not impact areas of cultural or historical significance.

Currently, Williams said the city’s most significant project involves moving the location of a playground, which has consisted of multiple conversations with community members and stakeholders.

“[We’re bringing that] to the table so that we are meeting not only the community needs but also we’re addressing the concerns, whether it be a transportation issue, stormwater issue or historical issue,” Williams said. “We want to make sure that everyone is engaged so we don’t make any missteps when the construction actually starts.”

The city is also working on a Fort Ward Interpretative Plan to expand interpretation of the site and better honor the park’s deep history.

Interpretative elements include museum enhancements like restructuring exhibit spaces to discuss “The Fort” community and updating an introductory film to provide a more comprehensive history; the creation of a commemoration space on the site for visitors to reflect on the struggles of those who built the community; wayside panels to reinforce the overall “Bastions of Freedom” theme while also providing detail on the site’s cultural heritage and 10 historic site markers that draw attention to specific locations or areas of significance that visitors might not otherwise be able to recognize.

Residents visit the city maintenance yard after its renovation. (Photo/Glenn Eugster)

But progress often takes time, and in this case, the pace of change has some residents feeling simultaneously hopeful and worried.

Joyce Casey Sanchez, whose ancestors on both sides of her family are tied to Fort Ward, has relatives who are buried at both the Jackson family site, purchased by James F. Jackson in 1884, and the Oakland Baptist Church site, purchased by Samuel Javins in 1879.

The third-generation Alexandrian said she is concerned about the preservation of the gravesites, especially those that are unmarked.

“[The city is] slowly getting things done, and I think overall they’re trying to preserve as much as they can, but because of the amount of houses and families that lived there, I’m not sure if there are graves in other areas,” Sanchez said.

One small step forward is the city’s recent engagement in discussions about the type of fencing that should protect the burial areas from adjacent park activities, Sanchez acknowledged, but that’s not where it should end.

The need to “keep pushing” is particularly apt in this case, when many who don’t live in the area may not be as aware of Fort Ward’s profound history as some of the longtime residents.

“For the older descendants who have lived here, they know how important the park is because it’s a symbol of what happened and how people lived back in the 1800s up until the city took over the park,” Sanchez said. “So, it needs to be integrated in such a way that the history will always be remembered and documented.”