“Discovery and Archaeology of the Freedmen’s Cemetery”
Illustrated Lecture to be held Thursday, February 20 7:30PM
In recognition of Black History Month the Alexandria Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee lecture series continues with an illustrated lecture by author and former Office of Historic Alexandria Archaeologist Dr. Steven Shephard on “Discovery and Archaeology of the Freedmen’s Cemetery.” The presentation involves the research by staff of the Office of Historic Alexandria that led to the discovery of a Civil War era cemetery for African Americans underneath an office building and gas station in Old Town Alexandria, and the archaeological research necessary to prepare the site for permanent memorial that is now under construction.
The Freedmen’s Cemetery served as the burial place for about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Alexandria to escape from bondage during the Civil War. They found a safe haven in Alexandria because of the Union occupation, but their large numbers resulted in a refugee crisis. While many found employment, other contrabands, as the freedmen were officially known, were destitute after fleeing slavery, and arrived hungry and in ill health. Many were housed in barracks, and disease was rampant. In 1864, after hundreds had perished, the Superintendent of Contrabands ordered that a property on the southern edge of town, across from the Catholic cemetery, be confiscated for use as a cemetery.
In the first year, burials included those of black soldiers, but African American troops recuperating in Alexandria’s hospitals demanded that blacks be given the honor of burial in the Soldiers’ Cemetery, now Alexandria National Cemetery. The soldiers’ graves were disinterred and moved to the military cemetery in January 1865. The last burial in Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery took place in January 1869.
The cemetery fell into disrepair, and a brickyard and railroad cutting encroached on its edges. The cemetery appeared on maps until 1939, but by then there would have been little remaining above-ground evidence of the burials. In 1955, a gas station was built on the property, followed by an office building.
More than 30 years later, historical research revealed the presence of the long-forgotten cemetery, and plans for rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge along the cemetery’s southern edge focused attention on it. Archaeologists used ground penetrating radar to confirm the presence of graves on the site, and the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery was formed to advocate for preservation of the site as a memorial. Additional archaeological excavations identified the location of graves to minimize impact of park construction. The layout of the cemetery, revealed by the archaeological work, will be reflected in design of the memorial park.
The lecture will be held on Thursday, February 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the historic Lloyd House, 220 North Washington Street, Alexandria, Virginia. Admission is free, and seating is on a first come, first served basis. There will be a short period for questions and light refreshments afterward.
This program will be the third of eight lecture and film presentations during 2013-2014 on the American Civil War, organized and sponsored by the Alexandria Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, Historic Alexandria Resources Commission, and the Office of Historic Alexandria.
For more information, please call 703.746.4554 or visit www.historicalexandria.org.