Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery

Historical Significance

The health of the destitute "contrabands" - southern slaves liberated by Union forces during the Civil War - who poured into Alexandria starting in 1861 was precarious. By 1864 at least 1,200 individuals had died, taxing the resources of the municipal cemetery. With black soldiers going to the front lines in increasing numbers, the death toll was sure to rise. In January, 1864, a new cemetery specifically for freedmen was established at the southern edge of Alexandria, on vacant land confiscated from its Confederate owner.

When a freedman, woman or child died, the local Superintendent of Contrabands - the Rev. Albert Gladwin, a black clergyman - had to be notified. Gladwin supplied the coffin and hearse, but the family of the deceased paid for the funeral unless deemed sufficiently indigent. Graves were marked with whitewashed wooden headboards.

The day-to-day running of Freedmen Cemetery was the job of head gravedigger Randall Ward, a freedman. One of thirteen children, Ward migrated to Alexandria about 1862 - the year Congress freed any slave employed by the Union military - and took a job as gravedigger, possibly at the new national Soldiers' Cemetery established that same year. At first members of the U.S. Colored Troops were buried in the Freedmen Cemetery, but outraged African-American soldiers successfully petitioned for black troops to be buried at Soldier's Cemetery, later renamed Alexandria National Cemetery.

In the five years of its operation, about 1,800 people were buried in Freedmen Cemetery. Many had been patients at L'Ouverture General Hospital, the black hospital built the same year, with the rest coming from contraband settlements scattered across the city. More than half were children. During the 20th century these remains were buried under a gas station parking lot, along the bluff overlooking the Beltway, and beneath the asphalt of Washington Street. In 1987, the Freedmen Cemetery was rediscovered by city historian T. Michael Miller. Subsequent archaeological work at the site revealed the location of 500 graves, which were left undisturbed. The Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery, formed in 1997, worked with the City of Alexandria to design a memorial park at the cemetery site. Alexandria architect C.J. Howard won first place honors in the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial Design Competition. 

Physical Description

The cemetery is still preserved along a bluff overlooking the Beltway, formerly under a Mobil gas station lot and an office building lot. In 2007, these buildings were razed for the creation of a public park, dedicated on May 12th of that year. The City of Alexandria has begun a five-year process of archaeology, research, and design and interpretation at the site to create the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial.

Geographical and Contact Information

1001 S. Washington St. and 714 Church St.
Alexandria, Virginia
22314
Phone: 703-838-4399

Images

Historic Marker

Historic Marker

Source: Courtesy VA Dept. Historic Resources View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery,” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed August 21, 2017, http://aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/96.

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