[West wall:]Learning to read at an Alexandria freedmen's school
During the Civil War, Alexandria's population swelled with more than 20,000 enslaved African Americans fleeing Confederate territory for safety behind Union lines. Initially called Contrabands because they were considered "property" taken during wartime, they would later be called Freedmen. The new arrivals joined Alexandria's free and enslaved African Americans, hoping to find jobs, homes, educational opportunities, and lost family. They also found deplorable living conditions and a raging smallpox epidemic. Many people died just as freedom came within reach.
The federal government established a cemetery for the dead here in 1864. A formal record documents the burials of 1,711 individuals through January 1869 when the government abandoned the cemetery. The community of Freedmen was left the task of maintenance, and they have continued using the burial ground well after it closed. Over time, its wooden grave markers deteriorated, and the cemetery suffered many desecrations. An adjacent brick manufactury excavated clay, exposing bones and coffins. The paving of Washington Street covered and disturbed graves, and the development of a gas station, the Beltway, and an office building destroyed hundreds more.
Locations of many of the surviving graves remain unidentified but more than 540 have
been found by archaeologists and given markers. Though individuals can no longer be linked to burial plots, the names of those buried in this cemetery survive. They are inscribed here, along with ages, dates and places of death, and notes left by the record-keeper. Today, visitors to the cemetery memorial join descendants of the Contrabands and Freedmen in honoring the memory of these freedom seekers.
Individuals whom living descendants have been identified are noted with this marker.
In Alexandria's first known civil rights protest, 443 members of the United States Colored Troops signed a petition requesting that black soldiers be buried alongside their white comrades-in-arms at the nearby military cemetery. Some authorities fought their request and, in one instance, the caisson of a USCT soldier en route to the military cemetery was forcibly re-routed to this cemetery. Still, the soldiers won their battle, and in January 1865, caskets of over a hundred USCT soldiers were disinterred from this burial ground and moved to Alexandria's National Cemetery where they are recognized by stone markers today. Their names are listed below.
The freedom seekers who arrived in Alexandria joined a large existing community of African
Americans, including many free and enslaved individuals. These residents, new and old, helped to shape the city, establishing neighborhoods, and founding churches and schools. They also went to work on the railroads, at the wharves, in factories and small businesses, at hospitals and army encampments, and in homes.
This burial ground for African Americans was established by the federal government on the outskirts of town, on land owned by Francis Smith, Robert E. Lee's attorney.
Injured soldiers of the US Colored Troops convalescing at L'Ouverture Hospital successfully petitioned for the right to a burial alongside their white comrades at this military cemetery.
Slave Jail and L'Ouverture Hospital
The Price, Birch and Co. slave jail at 1315 Duke Street was once the last stop for thousands of slaves sold south to a life of extreme hardship The Union army commandeered the property as a jail. In 1864, a hospital was built nearby that treated African-American soldiers and civilians for diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid. Shiloh Baptist Church congregation formed here.
Contraband Barracks and School
Some Freedmen found housing in crowded barracks like those on Prince Street. Despite the difficult conditions, Freedmen attended a school established at the
African American Schools
Deprived of an education by slavery, Contrabands and Freedmen seized the opportunity to learn. Adults and children alike filled Contraband schools across the city, learning for the first time to read and write.
African American Neighborhoods
While some of those arriving in Alexandria settled into established free black neighborhoods such as Hayti and The Bottoms, most camped out in deserted buildings or on marginal land, often constructing their own huts and shacks. These crowded settlements eventually became new African American neighborhoods such as Cross-Canal, Petersburg, and Grantville.
African American Churches
Places of gathering, faith, aid, and activism, Alexandria's black churches were critical to the Contraband and Freedmen community. Many of Alexandria's present-day congregations began meeting during the war.
Alexandria's strategic location where railroads met waterways made it a center of supply for the Union army. Rails also transported soldiers to the front and brought back the wounded to Alexandria's hospitals. Many Freedmen became railroad workers, helping to keep goods and personnel moving.
Many Contrabands and Freedmen worked on the waterfront, processing, loading, and unloading goods coming in
on ships and by rail. These laborers kept a steady stream of food and supplies flowing to the Union army.
Fleeing slavery for sanctuary and freedom in Alexandria
When Virginia seceded in May of 1861, Union troops occupied Alexandria and tortured the port town into a staging area and base for operations. It also became a beacon for freedom seekers who took the opportunity war provided to escape enslavement. Thousands of fleeing African Americans made the dangerous and difficult journey through Confederate territory, often traveling on foot, some coming from hundreds of miles away. They arrived in Alexandria hungry, tired, and with few resources, and began searching out food, clothing, shelter, medical treatment, and education.
"I traveled 65 miles and we had 52 in our number. be fore we crost the river....we tought, we wold be taken eny moment. the babys. cried. and we could whear. the sound of them. on the warter. we lay all night. in the woods. and the next. day. we traveled. on and we. reached. Suffolk that night. and we,. lost twenty. one. of the Number."
—Emma Bynum, a freedwoman describing her flight to freedom in a composition for her schoolteacher, Miss Lucy Chase
by their numbers, Alexandria could offer little aid to the newly arrived Contrabands. Some took up residence in temporary barracks created near the site of a former slave jail. Others found shelter in fee black neighborhoods or in abandoned buildings and shanties. Social workers like Julia Wilbur, a white Quaker from New York, and Harriet Jacobs, a black freedwoman, responded to the need by gathering from supplies, attending to medical problems, and setting up schools and other community services.
Despite their efforts, many, particularly children, died from exposure or disease. Still, the freed people worked tirelessly to create new lives, and in the process, reshaped the city of Alexandria.
The cemetery was established in 1864 and officially closed in 1869. Burial probably continued after this time, even as the wooden grave markers from the Civil War era deteriorated. Over the next century, the site endured many intrusions and no longer appeared to be a sacred place. This site map identifies features uncovered by historical and archaeological research, as well as desecrations that occurred through the 1990s.
1. Memorial Fence
Today, a steel fence evokes the wooden picket fence that once encircled the cemetery. The historic boundary is unknown, but likely included additional land that was paved over during the construction of South Washington Street.
2. Carriage Path
Carts carrying the dead entered the cemetery along this route.
3. Grave Shafts
Archaeology has identified more than 540 of the 1,711 burials believed to be present on the site. Although no graves or artifacts were disturbed, the study revealed evidence or prior destruction caused by development of the site.
4. American Indian Site
Thousands of stone artifacts were discovered during archaeological investigation, including a 13,000-year-old Clovis spear point. These finds suggest that American Indians periodically visited this bluff overlooking Hunting Creek for millennia to manufacture tools for hunting, scraping hides, and other activities.
5. United States Colored Troops Section
As a result of a successful protest by USCT to be buried with full honors alongside their white comrades, the caskets of USCT were moved from a section of this cemetery to the nearby military cemetery in 1865.
Clay excavations may have occurred on the western edge of the cemetery, resulting in the desecration of the graves, as noted by an 1892 Washington Post article: "Of late the owners have been allowing the neighboring brick yards to dig clay from the outer edges of the graveyard with which to make brick. This digging... has resulted in the unearthing of many coffins and skeletons and leaving the outer graves in very bad condition."
7. Gas Station
The current memorial plaza is built atop the floor and foundations of a service station built in 1955.
8. Office Buildings
The slab of a 1960 office building was covered during the memorial's construction to protect the graves presumed to be below. A reconstructed portion of the building can be seen on Church Street. Two stone markers located the southernmost corners of the building.
"Besides the school in the barracks there are our others in the city, which are self sustaining, one containing one hundred and fifty pupils. It is an astonishing fact, which ought to be placed upon record... that out of the two thousand people collected at Alexandria there are four hundred children sent daily to school. The first demand of these fugitives when they come into the place is, that their children may go to school."
—Harriet Jacobs, freedwoman, educator, and aid worker in Alexandria, April 29, 1863.
"I have just witnessed a novel and solemn scene, a funeral in the open air. The deceased, Peter Washington, was an old man, and a slave until the breaking out of the war...
After the singing and a prayer, a minister, an early associate of the deceased, gave a brief sketch of the life of Peter Washington. He had eight children; in one day he was bereft of his six daughters and five grandchildren. 'On that day,' said the minister, 'he leant on me, and with a bursting heart exclaimed, "If it were not for my hope in Christ, I could not bear up under this trial."'
[M]any of his hearers seemed to find an echo to a like experience in their own souls. They swayed their forms, and moaned as if some would of the past was being freshly probed. NO child of his came to bid him a last farewell, they are scattered I know not where: his two sons are in the army, battling for the country their father loved in spite of her persecutions to him and his."
—Harriet Jacobs, freedwoman, and aid worker in Alexandria, describing the funeral of Peter Washington, buried here May 23, 1864
[North side of statue:]
"I am thankful there is a beginning. I am full of hope for the future. A Power mightier than man is guiding this revolution; and though justice moves slowly, it will come at last. The American people will outlive this mean prejudice against complexion."
freedwoman, author, educator and dedicated aid-worker in Alexandria during the Civil War