Seeking freedom and a chance to begin a new life thousands of African Americans fleeing slavery flooded Civil War-era Alexandria. The city was quickly overwhelmed, and as living conditions grew dire, many perished from disease and deprivation. In 1864, the federal government established an African American burial ground here.
Within five years, the government abandoned the property. Left unprotected, and neglected by all but the families of the deceased, the cemetery endured multiple desecrations that nearly erased the memory of this site.
Today, through the efforts of a committed advocacy group, archaeologists, historians, descendants, and the City of Alexandria, this cemetery is reclaimed as a place of remembrance and reflection.
The Cemetery property changed hands many times over the years, and was rarely mapped or recorded. Left vulnerable to encroachment, parts of the cemetery were paved over by South Washington Street, and its southern edge was destroyed by the Beltway. The wall in front of you marks another such desecration — an office building constructed here in 1960 directly over the cemetery. Now underground, the building's slab was left in place to protect the graves that may remain below.
Uncovering the Story
In 1967, historical research brought the cemetery's history to light. Both moved and outraged by the story of the Contrabands and Freedmen, a committed advocacy group and city officials were inspired to protect what remained of the cemetery. In 2007, the encroaching structures were dismantled, and a respectful archaeological study was completed, revealing the location of more 540 of the cemetery's graves. The graves were preserved and are now marked in the Memorial.
A Living Memorial
In 2013, the cemetery was re-dedicated, with a full listing of the names of the dead. While the story told here lies in the past, it also is a part of Alexandria's present and future. Through genealogical research, many descendants of the people buried here have been identified, some of whom still live nearby. These descendants, as well as all who visit the memorial seeking to understand our history, honor the memory of those buried here and sustain the connection to our past.