By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Lillie Finklea, an activist and cemetery preservationist, died on Dec. 27. She was 83. Finklea was known across the community for her tender mentorship of young people, her dogged ambition, and most notably, her work in spearheading efforts to create the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial.
Born on Feb. 13, 1939, to Ealie Miller and Bernice Bittle Miller, Finklea was a longtime Alexandria resident. She went through the Alexandria City Public Schools system, having attended Lyles Crouch Elementary School and Parker Gray High School.
After high school, Finklea passed the civil service exam and became first a clerk typist and then computer analyst in the federal government. Though Finklea’s agency moved to Alabama, she wanted to stay in her home in the city’s Southwest Quadrant, so following 30 years of service, she made the decision to retire.
But Finklea wasn’t done serving others. Initially to supplement her income after retirement, she became a nanny to a young girl named Mary Ferrill and the two quickly developed a meaningful relationship. The Ferrills loved Finklea so much that she stayed to work with them into Mary’s teenage years.
Finklea was also a helpful resource for many neighborhood children and supported parents and kids during challenging times. A devout Christian, Finklea attended church every Sunday and mentored families; there, she provided encouragement, emotional guidance and sponsorship through the “adopt-a-child” program.
According to Katy Cannady, a longtime friend of Finklea’s, one young woman who lived with an alcoholic mother in a disorganized home would often go to Finklea’s home to focus on her homework without distractions.
“She took care of half the kids in the neighborhood, I think,” Cannady said. “If you went to Lillie’s house, it wasn’t unusual to meet somebody who was in his 20’s or older who would say, ‘Oh yeah, I had to come visit Miss Lillie ’cause she helped raise me.’”
From environmentalism to politics – Cannady and Finklea met while supporting local politician Andrew Macdonald’s campaign – Finklea was civically active in the community. Perhaps Finklea’s most notable contribution was her work in protecting Civil War grave sites for Black freedmen and runaway former slaves in Alexandria.
In January 1997, Finklea and another resident, Louise Massoud, discovered the history underneath a Flying A gas station near Washington Street and the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The site had served as a burial place for more than 1,800 African Americans who fled to the city to escape from bondage during the Civil War.
Finklea learned that the site was previously called Freedmen’s Cemetery, but the wooden markers that once memorialized the interred had decomposed and the GW Memorial Parkway had been built on top of the graveyard. She also learned that a new bridge spanning the Potomac River was planned that would potentially affect the burial ground.
She swiftly embarked on a tireless journey to both preserve what remained of the cemetery and prevent the incoming Wilson Bridge from further negative impacts. Through a nonprofit organization she and Massoud created called The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery, Finklea recruited many community residents to help spread the word about the story of Freedman’s Cemetery in hopes of transforming it into a memorial.
Resident Jack Sullivan, who was one of the residents recruited for the effort, still recalls standing on Washington Street handing out flyers to cars at stoplights about the cemetery’s significance.
“Lillie was behind it, she was the one that got us going,” Sullivan said. “… She was the guiding star for all this.”
Eventually, The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery received aid from City Council. In May 1997, Finklea held a memorial celebration for Freedmen’s Cemetery that included a wreath-laying ceremony to officially label the site as a cemetery. Several councilors were in attendance, and council later issued a proclamation declaring the last week of May a “week of remembrance of the Freedmen’s Cemetery.”
Then, in 2007, the city allocated mitigation funds to preserve the cemetery. After purchasing the gas station and a nearby office building, the city tore down both structures and rededicated the site as a cemetery. City archaeologists then worked to document remaining grave shafts, totaling almost 500. In 2014, Alexandria opened the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial which honors “the memory of the Freedmen, the hardships they faced, and their contributions to the City,” according to the city’s website.
Char McCargo Bah, an Alexandria genealogist and friend of Finklea, expressed gratitude and appreciation for her unwavering dedication to cemetery preservation.
“Being an activist for the Freedmen Cemetery gave Lillie a higher purpose in life,” McCargo Bah said. “The cemetery became her single most commitment. She was the face and the voice of the Freedmen Cemetery. She gave it all she had and lived to see her hard work become a memorial site for all others to enjoy.”
Though Cannady said she’ll remember Finklea for her kindness and “fun sense of humor,” it’s her hardworking nature that stands out the most.
“When she wanted something, she didn’t take no for an answer. She was a very determined woman. Determination was her most outstanding quality,” Cannady said.
Sullivan echoed this sentiment in describing how Finklea lives on in his memory.
“The one thing that occurs to me is how much a single individual with a vision, who is dedicated and certainly persuasive to other people, can really get something done that is important and lasting,” Sullivan said. “And she did that.”
Finklea is preceded in death by two brothers, James Howard and Henry Arthur. She is survived by her sister, Bernice Miller Golden; two nieces, Kim Casey and Karen Wilson; three nephews, Louis Golden, James Miller and Daryl Miller; sisterin-law Connie Miller; two great nieces and six great nephews.
A memorial service took place on Monday at 11 a.m. at Russell Temple Church, located at 507 N. Alfred St.