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SilhouettesContrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery Memorial Design Competition 2008

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History of the Site
Images: Past and Present

City Seal and Freedmen's Logo

Project Site

The site for The Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial is approximately 3 acres in size and is located at the southwest corner of Church and South Washington Streets in historic Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. An interstate highway exit ramp and sound barrier wall create the site’s southern and western boundaries. The extant graves are located in the eastern portion of the site, which is relatively open and contains two building foundations. (See page 3-4 of the Call for Entries.) The western half of the site contains sparse vegetation. Additionally, the site drops approximately 30’ in elevation over a 550’ span from east to west with a significant change in the topography occurring near the middle of the site.

Site History

The Contrabands and Freedmen’s* Cemetery was established in 1864 as a burial ground for African Americans who fled slavery, seeking a safe haven in Union-controlled Alexandria during the Civil War. More than 1,800 people were buried there over the five years that the federal government managed the cemetery. After 1869 the cemetery may have been used unofficially by families as a burial ground but was likely not maintained formally. Over the years, the site has been compromised and hundreds of graves lost from a number of actions: the removal of soil from the cemetery for brick making; the adjacent development of two major highways; and the construction of a gas station and office building on the sacred site. Most people were unaware that a burial ground survived under the pavement on the commercial property until historical research began to reveal the presence of the cemetery in 1987. Community interest and archaeological investigations over the last ten years have resulted in an appreciation for the cemetery, the largest historic African American burial site in the city, and its long forgotten story. While other physical sites that recalled the once-considerable African American presence in Alexandria have been lost, the City of Alexandria acquired the property in 2007 in order to remove the buildings, reclaim the cemetery, and create a memorial.

*Contraband was a term used by the federal government during the American Civil War referring to a slave who escaped to or was brought within the Union lines while Freedmen was a term used referring to individuals who had been freed from slavery.