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Alexandria Scout honors forgotten dead at African American cemetery

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As Rosanne Hynes peered out her condo window, she saw a young man in the middle of the abandoned African American graveyard. All of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex of Alexandria, on the south side of Old Town near the Beltway, is essentially in Hynes’ backyard. But where she saw the teen — the Douglass Cemetery — lies directly under her window, and it’s the most poorly maintained of all. 

A stone’s throw away is the Alexandria National Cemetery, a look-alike of the better-known Arlington National Cemetery. Crisp rows of stately white graves stand erect in the manicured, green grass. Surrounding that cemetery, tombstones of all shapes and sizes lie amidst trees and flowers in plots maintained by Alexandria churches. 

At the Douglass Cemetery, graves are splayed every which way like wiggly teeth. Some headstones sink so low in the hallowed ground that only the first name of the deceased is visible through the shoots of sprouting green shrubbery. The land is often swampy, said Hynes, and many mature trees have died from lack of care.

Members of Griffin Burchard’s Boy Scout troop rake up leaves at the Douglass Cemetery in Alexandria Aug. 7. ZOEY MARAIST  |  CATHOLIC HERALD

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Worried about what the young man might be doing in the normally quiet cemetery, Hynes went down to investigate. She was pleased to learn that the teen’s name was Griffin Burchard, and he had made it his mission to care for the final resting place of hundreds of African Americans. 

A few years back, Burchard and his Boy Scout troop had gone to Alexandria National Cemetery to remove old wreaths from the graves. When they arrived, the wreathes were gone, but they still wanted to do some service work. When they noticed the shabby condition of nearby Douglass Cemetery, they raked the leaves and picked up debris there. 

The only clue to the graveyard’s past was the wooden sign with tan lettering that read, “Douglass Cemetery, circa 1827.” So Burchard, a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria and a student at St. Anselm's Abbey School in Washington, decided to do some research at the Barrett Library in Alexandria. 

“I went to see what information they had there, and they didn’t have much,” said Burchard. “They just had a book that was written by this man named Wesley Pippenger. He has records of where people were buried and basic information about the cemetery.” By reading old newspapers, Burchard confirmed that the cemetery was named after abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass. He learned the only upkeep the cemetery receives is occasional grass cutting.

Burchard decided to bring attention to the cemetery through his Eagle Scout project, and Alexandria officials were excited to help. “Because of the age and condition of the cemetery, there was no way to restore the grave markers,” said Burchard. “However, we agreed that I would research, design and install a new sign to bring more attention to this historic cemetery and also to give more information about the cemetery and people buried there.”

The completion of Burchard’s work coincided with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia. John Rolfe recorded the event, writing that “20 and odd” African men and women landed at Point Comfort in August of 1619. According to the U.S. National Park Service, the Africans were taken by English privateers off a Spanish slave ship and brought to the New World in the “White Lion.” The vessel’s docking point is memorialized at the Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton. 

African American history, from something as notable as the first arrival of African men and women to Virginia to something as forgotten as the Douglass Cemetery, is all around the commonwealth. Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, is grateful when someone like Burchard steps in to shed light on local history. 

“There are so many wonderful sites that often need our attention and there are so few of us, so it really takes a community to make sure people are aware, especially for African American history,” she said. “I think there’s so much more we can do in the city, and Griffin is just aiding us in the work that’s being done.”

In the hours before the Aug. 15 sign unveiling ceremony, Burchard, his fellow Boy Scouts and family members made sure the cemetery looked its best. Burchard’s mom doled out liberal squirts of bug spray before the crew raked leaves, scraped mud out of the street gutters and spread mulch around the trees. Once they were finished, they changed into their khaki Boy Scout uniforms. 

Boy Scout Griffin Burchard (left) waits to give remarks during the sign unveiling ceremony at Douglass Cemetery Aug. 7. ZOEY MARAIST  |  CATHOLIC HERALD

CEM6Josesphite Father Donald M. Fest, pastor of the historically African American St. Joseph Church in Alexandria, opened the ceremony with prayer. Burchard gave a speech, thanking those who helped him with this project. He expressed hope that a group would permanently adopt the cemetery. “Ultimately, I would like to see an organization step forward to handle the regular upkeep of the cemetery so that it is a respected and peaceful place, just like all the other cemeteries that make up the Wilkes Street Complex,” he said. 

Then, a black cloth was pulled to reveal the sign nailed below the original wooden one. “The Douglass Cemetery Association was founded in 1895 as a non-denominational segregated cemetery for Alexandria’s African American Community,” it reads. Freedmen and women and their descendants were buried there from 1896 to 1975. At the bottom of the sign is a quote from Douglass. “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.”

Hynes and her heavily panting dog Simca braved the afternoon heat to attend the ceremony alongside Burchard’s troop, family members, Alexandria officials and others. “Not much makes me come out in this weather but this was important. I just think it’s tremendous that this guy did this,” said Hynes. “It’s a lasting history lesson.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019

@ZoeyMaraistACH