Founded during the Civil War, the Berg Neighborhood got its name from enslaved blacks who fled Petersburg and settled in northeast Alexandria after Union troops occupied the city in May 1861. It was one of the first black neighborhoods to develop north of King Street, the commercial center of white Alexandria. Called Petersburg at the time, it was located just west of the waterfront area known as Fishtown, a seasonal neighborhood of shacks next to the wharves on the Potomac River, and bounded to the west by the tracks of the Alexandria & Washington Railroad, which had been confiscated by Union troops.
The flood of black refugees who clustered in small settlements throughout the town transformed the city's racial geography. Before the Civil War, Free Blacks had congregated mostly in two neighborhoods, the Bottoms and Hayti, located for the most part south of the white residential and retail districts. After 1861, the thousands of African-Americans who came to the city in search of protection, shelter, and jobs settled in new areas of the city.
Contrabands, southern slaves who were liberated by Union troops during the Civil War, worked for the military on the wharf and at the railroad or built barracks for soldiers and destitute freedmen. By 1864, African Americans had filled vacant lots in the old town as well as the outskirts with hastily-built shanties. The Berg was joined by Contraband Valley, Pump Town, Newtown, Grantville and more than a dozen other settlements.
The Berg continued to be an African-American neighborhood throughout the 20th century. In the 2000 movie, "Remember the Titans," set during Alexandria's school integration crisis of 1971, the Berg was used as shorthand for the black ghetto. "Whites lived on Seminary Ridge, Blacks lived in 'the Berg' near the waterfront," screenwriter and Alexandria resident Gregory Allen Howard recalled in a September 2000 interview in the Los Angeles Times. "They did not 'mix,' a common term used then."
Today one of the Berg's most prominent landmark is the Samuel Madden Homes, named for the first African-American pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church. Built in 1945, the 100-unit public housing complex covers several blocks in what is now Old Town Alexandria. Over the years the historic roots of the Berg's name were lost.
The Berg covers an area of about 15 blocks in total. Its boundaries have changed over the years. The western side is bordered by North St. Asaph Street, the northern side by Madison Street, the southern side by Princess Street, and the eastern edge lies along North Fairfax Street. There are no remaining structures from the historic period. The most obvious landscape feature today is the two-story public housing complex covering several blocks.
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N. Royal and Oronoco Streets area