The fight to preserve Douglass Cemetery

The fight to preserve Douglass Cemetery
Douglass Cemetery was established in 1895 but has served as a burial ground for Black residents since 1827. (Photo/Gretchen Bulova)

By Olivia Anderson |

When Michael Johnson’s mother told him that several of his relatives were buried in a nearby cemetery, he didn’t believe her at first.

The foliage she gestured toward appeared to Johnson as nothing more than an overgrown forest full of shrubbery he used to play in as a kid.

“I kept telling her, ‘Nah, mom, there isn’t nobody over there – only weeds and bushes over there,’” Johnson recalled.

But after his mother died a few years ago, Johnson grew curious about the place where so many of his ancestors were supposedly buried. Sure enough, after perusing the Wilkes Street location he made out a few sporadically visible headstones and learned the area was officially titled Douglass Cemetery, but it was ill-maintained at the time and only worsened every time the area would flood.

It took a month and a half of visits to the cemetery – on dry days – and communication with local funeral homes to obtain death records, but eventually Johnson located all of his relatives buried at Douglass Cemetery. The list is lengthy; just some of the interred include his grandfather Albert Johnson, as well as his aunt, uncle, grandmother and great-great-grandfather.

Johnson recognized almost immediately that a deep well of history existed at the historically Black cemetery, but much of it was becoming increasingly washed away with the rain.

“From there on, I was just taken aback that you could only see about 600 headstones there,” Johnson said.

Records show more than 2,000 people may have been buried on the 1.4 acre plot up until 1975.

The circumstances initially incensed Johnson, but then, in 2019, they inspired him to create the Social Responsibility Group, a private citizens’ organization aimed at using the lens of race and ethnic disparity to enhance the community and the lives of citizens within it.

SRG and partnering organizations uncovered a great deal of history surrounding the cemetery, which had been used as such since 1827 but was officially established in 1895 as a segregated, non-denominational Black burial ground and named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

According to an 1895 edition of the Alexandria Gazette, for instance, the property owners’ original vision for the site included erecting a monument in the center dedicated to Douglass’ memory, though it is unclear whether this ever came to fruition.

Douglass Cemetery was named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass. (Photo/Michael Johnson)

While the location’s rich past and personal connection served as an emboldening force for Johnson, he said he’s sorry that anyone’s final resting place could wind up in such a dilapidated state.

“I wouldn’t care who was buried there, whether they were related to me or not, I wouldn’t want to see any cemetery looking the way that one looked,” Johnson said.

SRG voiced concerns that the ongoing flooding was slowly disintegrating Alexandria’s history and vocally advocated for the site’s protection through various letters, events and city partnerships.

Johnson’s advocacy worked.

At its most recent public hearing, City Council presented a proposed legislative package for fiscal year 2022 for the General Assembly, which includes a request for up to $3 million to support the cemetery’s preservation and restoration.

“The site [is] both inaccessible to the public and indecent to the memory of those buried at the site,” reads the formal city request.

Although 83 of the graves at Douglass Cemetery currently qualify for an annual $5-per grave funding through the Historical African American Cemeteries and Graves Fund at the Department of Historic Resources, Sarah Taylor, the city’s legislative director, said this is not nearly enough.

Because of the severe flooding, drainage issues that cause the ground level to sink and headstones to topple and the typical ravages that accrue over time, Taylor predicted that a much higher number would be needed to protect the burial ground.

“Five dollars per year, 83 headstones – that’s enough to get the place mowed maybe once, but it’s not enough to fix the flooding and truly make this a place of dignity for visitors or those who are buried there,” Taylor said.

If the city is granted its request, the funds would go toward proper landscaping; repositioning the headstones; cleaning up flooding detritus; historical interpretation of the site; investigation of the drainage issue; and the addition of signage about the site’s historical significance.

Many view council’s attention to Douglass Cemetery as a hard-won victory that is indicative of progress.

“I think it’s wonderful, because especially African American cemeteries have so often been left out of the preservation conversation. And now that there is a great push for the preservation, there’s a lot of work going on all throughout the state, and tons to support cemetery preservation,” Alexandria Black History Museum Director Audrey Davis said of the news. “It’s another way council has shown they are supportive of African American history and social justice, so I think it’s great news.”

But time is ticking, as flooding continues to erase bits and pieces of the historic cemetery, and officials cannot yet pinpoint what exactly is causing such devastating erosion.

Gretchen Bulova, director of the Office of Historic of Alexandria, one of SRG’s partners, acknowledged that additional funding would assist with solving this issue that has intensified during the last five years. Based on OHA’s assessment, she suggested that some of the damage could be related to a 1902 sewer pipe that ran through the cemetery.

If damaged, broken or blocked, the channel might be contributing to the flooding problem, which could be exacerbated by a potential unidentified drainage issue.

“We want to explore that first, and if that is not a problem or we can’t figure it out, then we need to do a whole assessment of how water is moving through that space and bring in civil engineers,” Bulova said. “There could be multiple reasons, but we want to start with what we’ve found archivally that could be the problem.”

OHA has opted to document all aspects of the problem before beginning any deeper work. The city received a $10,500 grant from the state in 2019 to conduct ground-penetrating radar that maps out ground disturbances to show not only tree roots and rodent holes, but distinguishable burial patterns.

Many grave markers have disappeared as a result of severe flooding. (Photo/Michael Johnson)

City surveyors mapped out every existing headstone, and the information is now in the city’s Geographic Information System. The technology was also used at other Alexandria burial sites such as Freedman Cemetery, which was restored seven years ago.

Regardless of what is causing the flooding issues, though, Bulova emphasized that the situation must be handled with caution.

“Anything to do with cemeteries needs to be done very carefully. You don’t want to do any sort of ground disturbance and this needs to be done with the utmost respect. It’s not like we can get in there and dig things up and fix the problem,” Bulova said.

Most city officials agree with Bulova that historic preservation of Douglass Cemetery is a valuable and delicate undertaking and must be prioritized accordingly.

“I think everyone realizes how important our cemeteries are, not just for the literal burying of people but because the cemeteries are a wealth of history. They reflect on our burial practices, they reflect on our history, they’re another way for people to learn about people in the community,” Davis said.

Since outgoing governor Ralph Northam has demonstrated support of historic preservation in the past, Taylor posited that the request stands a good chance of being approved. Plus, Taylor recently attended a senate finance committee retreat in Roanoke where she said she learned that there is presently “a lot of cash on the table.”

“There’s no better way to spend cash than on onetime capital improvements,” Taylor said. “Whether that’s our CSO project or something like this, it’s one-time money that will have a significant long-term impact on a site that deserves real preservation and interpretation.”

If Northam adopts the city’s request as part of the governor’s budget, it will then go through the budget process in the House and Senate.

It’s worth noting that the November election yielded a shift in party leadership at the state level with Republican Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin stepping into office and a Republican majority taking the Virginia House of Delegates, thus calling into question whether many of council’s legislative package proposals will make it into the state budget.

Taylor said she thinks the Douglass Cemetery request is feasible, but if it is not granted, the city will explore other funding avenues for the site.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about its fate, but what’s the worst that could happen? They tell us ‘No, there’s no money for it,’ and then we figure out how to do it ourselves,” Taylor said.

With the uncertainty surrounding state funding, Johnson said his goal in the meantime remains working alongside neighbors to cherish and speak for those who no longer have a voice. He hopes to one day implement a wayside plaque that includes the names of every single person buried at Douglass Cemetery.

“I want everybody to know that they are not just discarded memories or bodies; these are actual people that lived,” Johnson said. “And I think we owe them that honor to identify and acknowledge them for the path they laid for so many of us.”