Douglass Cemetery needs state funds

Douglass Cemetery needs state funds
Douglass Cemetery was established in 1895 but has served as a burial ground for Black residents since 1827. (Photo/Gretchen Bulova)

To the editor:

The Times’ coverage of the efforts to preserve the Frederick Douglass Memorial Cemetery highlighted the important role of the newly formed Social Responsibility Group, which is already making a difference in raising awareness of key issues of fairness and justice in our city. The Old Town Village has also taken important steps to save these grounds.

Now the focus must turn to the question of funding. As your reporter noted, the City of Alexandria has included the cemetery in its budget submitted last month to lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly, requesting up to $3 million. It is now up to state legislators to ensure that funding comes through.

Attention to the preservation of this historic and sacred place is long overdue. As flooding has increased and wrought damage to grave sites and displaced tombstones, time is running out. Not only do the people buried there – hundreds of African American people, enslaved and free – deserve this respect, the cemetery is also a piece of Virginia’s history that builds critical understanding of our society, past and present. We must save it.

In the new and best-selling book, “How the Word is Passed,” author Clint Smith explains the injustices of the Commonwealth of Virginia providing funding for Confederate cemeteries over the years while African American cemeteries received little to nothing. As he writes on page 133:

“Cemeteries filled with Black and formerly enslaved people have never received commensurate financial support. The Virginia legislature passed the historical African American Cemeteries and Graves Act in 2017, to demonstrate its commitment to making amends for this injustice, but at the time of the Smithsonian investigation [a research project on cemetery funding] less than $1,000 had been used. (Virginia has increased its level of support since then, and established a fund specifically for 19th century African-American cemeteries in 2020, a step to make up for over a century’s worth of neglect.)”

In a time of budget surplus, our elected state officials have no reason to delay. As a longtime city resident and citizen of Virginia nearly my whole life, I urge our General Assembly members to rectify these wrongs and fully fund Alexandria’s request to restore and preserve the Douglass Cemetery.

-Lisa Guernsey, Alexandria