Uncovering Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery

“Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery: A Legacy of Freedom,” by Char McCargo Bah

An Interview with Char McCargo Bah

By Shenise Foster

Black History Month is a time to reflect and honor the contributions of African Americans in a way that is not done on a consistent basis throughout the year. As a native Alexandrian, a 2014 Alexandria Living Legend and a renowned genealogist, Char McCargo Bah has made it her mission to discover and document stories of Alexandria’s African American community. Here we discuss her second book, Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery: A Legacy of Freedom, to learn about the inspiration for her book and the lives that helped mold it.

Q: Congratulations on the publishing of your second book! How is it different from your first book, African Americans of Alexandria, VA: Beacons of Light in the Twentieth Century?

Thanks! My first book was about African Americans in Alexandria who made a positive impact on their community from 1920 to 1965. The book was based on the achievements of the African American community over that 45-year period.

My second book is about the Civil War, when African Americans were pouring into Alexandria to be protected by the Union. Many of these people were former slaves who were sick and malnourished. They were dying in large numbers. A burial site was set aside for them, but after the Civil War they were forgotten. Some 150 years later, the cemetery was rediscovered. This book is about who those people were and finding their descendants. The time period ranges from the 19th Century into the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Char McCargo Bah

Q: When did you first decide to document the lives of Freedmen and Freedwomen?

The City of Alexandria hired me to locate descendants of the Freedmen’s Cemetery in 2008. so that is when I started documenting them.

Q: What research did you do? How long did you spend researching before beginning the book?

I used all of my skills in researching the descendants. These included genealogical research, urban studies methodologies, sociology, geography and historical research.

The research period was from 2008 to 2014. I spent 40 hours a week on it. After 2014, I took a two-year rest period from the cemetery project. Then I worked on the book proposal. I did not start writing until the fall of 2017. It took me seven months to write the book.

Q: What did you leave out of the book?

One major section that was edited out was about 41 descendant families that didn’t give me a permission to use their stories, so I cut their narratives from the book.

Q: What is the most surprising story you uncovered when writing Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery: A Legacy of Freedom? 

There were several surprising stories. One was about an African American man who was a slave owner of his own family. He made a will freeing his sons but not his daughters.

A second surprising story was that a large number of Freed African Americans were buried in the same cemetery with former slaves. Also, the United States Colored Troops (USCT) were buried there until they protested that their deceased comrades be relocated to the Alexandria National Cemetery. This was one of the first civil rights protests won in Alexandria.

Q: Do you have any upcoming book signings or events?

I am scheduled now for 30 book signings. My first book signing will be at the Alexandria Black History Museum on February 9, at 12:00 noon. Additional book signings will be listed on my blog at www.findingthingsforu.com under events.

Q: What’s next for Char McCargo Bah?

I am in the beginning stages of researching my next book, about the Parker-Gray School from 1920 to 1965. I am continuing to write my historical articles on the Alexandria African American community for local Alexandria media. And I am in search of my next genealogical project.

Zebra readers can purchase Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery: A Legacy of Freedom at the Alexandria Black History Museum, Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com.

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