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Descendants of escaped slaves honor ancestors in Alexandria

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Corrin Nicole Franklin Reed, a lifelong Alexandrian, always believed her family was from Philadelphia and North Carolina. But in reality, her ancestors had lived and died in her hometown. Reed and the other descendants of the thousands of African Americans buried at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery in Alexandria hadn’t learned about that part of their past because for many years, no one remembered the cemetery existed.

“This is my home turf, my stomping grounds,” she said. “I had no idea that my roots were literally here in Alexandria.”

The cemetery, located near Route 1 and the Beltway, was forgotten decades after it was created in the midst of the Civil War. After Union troops took control of the port city of Alexandria, slaves in search of freedom flocked to the area. One estimate says that 10,000 people arrived in 16 months, and in total about 20,000 African Americans came during the war. The men and women were considered confiscated property or contrabands of war, which prevented their return to their legal owners in the Confederacy. 

The flood of refugees took a toll on the city and little aid could be offered to the newcomers. Still, women such as Julia Wilbur, a white, northern Quaker, and Harriet Jacobs, a freedwoman, organized schools and the collection of medical and material support for them. The contrabands worked as bakers, nurses, servants and laborers. They lived in shantytowns. Many died of smallpox.

Alexandria Poet Laurate KaNikki Jakarta performs one of her poems at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Alexandria Sept. 14.


lr contrabandsIn need of a place to bury the contrabands, the military governor seized property owned by Francis L. Smith, who was Robert. E. Lee’s lawyer and a wealthy parishioner of St. Mary Church, according to parish historian Kitty Guy. Some 1,700 contrabands and freedmen living in Alexandria were buried there, half of them under the age of 16. Their graves were marked with wooden headstones. 

Initially, African American Union soldiers also were buried there. But with the support of Alexandria Quartermaster Captain J.G.C. Lee, the living veterans petitioned that the deceased soldiers be reinterred in the Alexandria National Cemetery.

The soldiers wrote: “We are not contrabands, but soldiers of the U.S. Army, we have cheerfully left the comforts of home, and entered into the field of conflict, fighting side by side with the white soldiers, to crush out this God insulting, Hell deserving rebellion. It has been said that the colored soldiers desire to be burried in the Contrabands Cemetary, we have never expressed such a desire, nor do we ask for any such distinction to be made, but in the more pertinant language of inspiration we would say, (Ruth 1:16-17) ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, for whither thou goest I will go.’ ” Their request was granted.

After the war ended, Smith regained his property. In 1917, his descendants conveyed the land to the Diocese of Richmond, and its leader, Bishop Denis J. O’Connell. The diocese sold the land in 1946 and years later a gas station and an office building were built on the property. 

In 1987, historian T. Michael Miller found 19th-century newspaper articles referring to a Freedmen’s Cemetery in Alexandria. Once people knew it was there, support for rededicating the cemetery grew. The city worked with the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to use funds associated with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement project to buy the property and raze the buildings. 

Archaeologists excavated the site and identified 540 graves in the cemetery that once held 1,200 more. Some graves were destroyed in construction, some lay beneath the sidewalk and street that separates the cemetery from St. Mary’s Cemetery. Today, simple stone slabs mark the existing graves in the plot of grass. A memorial structure tells the story of the contrabands and lists their names and ages. Using information from the ledger of burials, Native Alexandrian and genealogist Char McCargo Bah tracked down as many of the living descendants as she could. 

Those who were able gathered at the memorial to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the cemetery’s rededication Sept. 14. They listened to poetry and spirituals and talked about how much the cemetery meant to them. “I’ll forever visit and try to contribute and honor my ancestors,” said Reed. “I’m just thankful for their strong will, for we would not be here today (without it).”

Though she lives in Silver Spring, Md., now, descendant Elizabeth Goods Brooks-Evans grew up in Alexandria. She attended St. Joseph School and was the first African American woman to attend St. Mary Academy, both of which are now closed. She’s grateful to Bah for finding her, for the archaeologists and for all the city officials who made the memorial possible. “(Without them), these graves could still be below a gas station,” she said. “I actually can feel a lot of emotion just being here with these graves. To think of what they were going through, it’s just too touching.”


After the ceremony, those gathered placed a wreath in front of the memorial and threw white rose petals on the dramatic bronze sculpture, “The Path of Thorns and Roses” by artist Mario Chiodo. 

On the base of the sculpture is a quote from freedwoman Harriet Jacobs: “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.” 

Find out more

Christian Bentley, a parishioner of St. Joseph Church in Alexandria who has ancestors buried in the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, is organizing a monthly Saturday morning rosary at the cemetery. To learn more, contact him at sr.bentleyva@gmail.com. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019