To the editor:
Alexandria has just lost one of its most noteworthy citizens of the last 40 years, Lillie Finklea. During her long life, Lillie did many things. Despite having no college degree, she was a computer specialist with the federal government. I think she was on the ground floor of the computer revolution. She signed up for extensive computer training as soon as it was offered to all employees, attaining a more responsible and well-paid position than her previous clerical jobs. Unfortunately, her agency moved to Alabama. Lillie had too much loyalty to Alexandria and to her Southwest Quadrant neighborhood to consider a move. She retired from federal employment, but not from her life of dedicated service to others.
Although Lillie never had children of her own, she was a resource for neighborhood children, particularly teenagers who needed guidance from a responsible adult.
Lillie was a devout church woman who reserved Sunday to hear the Gospel. The other six days of the week, she worked on her new profession: political organizer and lobbyist. No K Street lobbyist ever had anything on Lillie when it came to raising awareness and political support.
Lillie’s great cause was the creation of the Freedmen’s and Contraband Cemetery. When she and many others, including me, first committed ourselves to bringing the cemetery into being, most of it was a weedy, overgrown field surrounded by a chain link fence. Outside the fence was a working gas station. Its concrete apron sat atop unmarked graves.
Forgotten by most Alexandria residents, the entire area was the last resting place of more than 200 souls. Some had been free African Americans, others were escaped slaves – the contraband.All had crowded into Alexandria during the Civil War.All those who had died here had been buried by a Union Army chaplain in what was then a Potters’ Field on the edge of town and over time forgotten. The chaplain kept a list of the names. By sheer luck, an archivist found that list.
When Lillie Finklea went to work to save the burial ground, it was under imminent threat. A new, wider bridge across the Potomac was being planned. The new bridge as planned could dig up graves on the western edge. Lillie organized Saturday visits to the chain link fence, the closest place we could get to the graves. There we had remarks from supporters and tied a funeral wreath to the fence. On at least one occasion everyone then proceeded to the Black History Museum for cake and punch. Some people are said to move mountains. Lillie Finklea moved a bridge and got an historical marker installed so that the cemetery was no longer unknown to most people.
Saving the cemetery from destruction was only the first victory. We needed the city of Alexandria to buy the land and make it a true memorial to those interred in it, in other words, spend considerable money. Lillie enlisted the president of the Parker Gray Alumnae Association – also Lillie’s alma mater – as a valuable ally.
Since honoring the dead was a religious act, Lillie wrote letters to all the city’s churches. Each letter contained a packet of information so all letter writers could be well informed in the letters they were asked to send to the mayor and City Council.
Around this time, I was at home recovering from a surgery, but healthy enough to address envelopes.My dining table became central to this effort, stacked with packets and letters.It worked.Bill Euille, mayor at that time, told Lillie that a great many of the letter recipients did exactly as asked. In the end, so did council.Today everyone can see the cemetery when driving on South Washington Street. All the deceased are listed by name on a memorial wall. All graves are marked. In the center is a handsome statue and the entrance identifies it as the Freedmen’s and Contraband’s Cemetery.
For all this, we have Lillie Finklea to thank. I will add to this honor roll three others that Lillie herself thanked at the groundbreaking: Euille, then Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland and the late Ellen Pickering, another talented community organizer who advised Lillie.
-Katy Cannady, Alexandria