ALEXANDRIA, Va. — An Alexandria landmark, the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial continues to bring healing to some in Old Town’s African-American community as the public marked the second anniversary of the memorial’s dedication Sunday.
The memorial, at the corner of South Washington and Church Street, honors the more than 1,700 African-Americans who fled slavery but died after arriving in the city during the Civil War.
The site was dedicated on Sept. 6, 2014.
“We had the ceremony the dedication in 2014. And so out of that, I found about 169 people who were buried there. I found their decedents,” said genealogist Char McCargo Bah.
McCargo Bah was asked by the city to find descendants of those who were buried at the cemetery. More than half of those buried at the cemetery are children. Many died from disease after a refugee crisis was caused by the 20,000 slaves making their way to Alexandria and to freedom.
The last recorded burial took place in January of 1869. But the cemetery was long forgotten, and was even built over and turned into a gas station.
“Selling the cemetery and putting a gas station on it was almost like removing it,” McCargo Bah said.
She said the cemetery was rediscovered after work was done to reconstruct the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. “Until they started working on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and found the remains and then went back to older maps and found out it was the Freedmen Cemetery,” she said.
McCargo Bah has been tracking down descendants of those who are buried at the cemetery and teaching them about their history and about the relatives they never knew they had.
She says it has been life changing to connect these descendants with their past.
“The ones who fought in the Civil War, who didn’t have any idea,” McCargo Bah said. “To see people cry they didn’t know. To hear the stories of what their ancestors did and where they came from.”
She said it has brought joy to so many people and it connected them to history.
“It was really overwhelming for them and it made a difference for them and they had a new sense of pride,” she said.
McCargo Bah is in the process of writing a book on those buried at the cemetery and their descendants.
McCargo Bah said a chaplain hired by the federal government performed burial ceremonies and recorded the names. She said a ledger contains the names of those who are buried at the cemetery. That said, the children who died were not named. McCargo Bah said that we would probably never know their identities.