ALEXANDRIA,VA- What is the price of freedom? For more than 1,700 former enslaved African Americans buried in Alexandria, it meant everything. Over the weekend of Sept. 13, leaders throughout Alexandria honored them at the fifth anniversary of the dedication of the the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial.
“Freedom is something that all people want no matter what,” said historian Char McGaro Bah at a candlelight vigil at the memorial on Saturday, Sept. 14. “Just imagine in the 1860s, especially 1864, on a night that you decide you are going to run and take your chance on freedom. You enter Alexandria, you have no candles, only you can follow the moon that illuminates your way to freedom. You get to Alexandria and you collapse and die, but before you close your eyes you look at the moon and said, ‘I am free. I am free here on this soil. I am free in my heart. I am free when I entered freedom, it was so much I couldn’t bear.’ “Freedom is something that people take for granted until they lose it, and here on this soil people came to Alexandria because people knew they would be free. They knew the Union would protect them, and we’re here to honor them.”
The site of the memorial, Freedmen’s Cemetery, was established by Union military authorities in 1864 in response to an overwhelming health and humanitarian crisis in Alexandria. More than 1,700 freed and formerly enslaved African Americans were buried in the cemetery during and just after the war. The cemetery fell into disrepair and nearly faded from memory before being restored and rededicated in 2007. The Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial opened in 2014 on the site of the cemetery, to honor the memory of the Freedmen; the hardships they faced and their contributions to Alexandria.
In 1861, Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler declared former slaves contraband of war, effectively providing protection, work, and freedom. Word spread fast throughout the south and soon thousands of former slaves were showing up at Union strongholds seeking asylum.
“It created a humanitarian crisis for the city, an occupied city at war. There wasn’t enough food, clothing, or housing for these people, and many died very, very young. Many of the burials here, more than half, are children under the age of 16,” said Audrey Davis, executive director of the Alexandria Black History Museum. “It was through a lot of dedication and hard work, through community activists in the city of Alexandria, to work together to create this memorial that honors the over 1,700 men, women and children buried at the site. And tonight we honor them. We give them the dignity and death that they were denied in life. They came to Alexandria seeking freedom, but unfortunately did not get to live long in it.”
The Rev. Marc Lavarin of Alfred Street Baptist Church, said that the fifth anniversary of the opening of the memorial should remind visitors about the importance of history in the days ahead.
“Let us never forget that this ground that we’re standing upon is holy and sacred ground,” Lavarin said. “See, we fail to remember when we continue to seek to put policy in front of people, we fail to remember when our unjust laws forget our calls to remember, we fail to remember when we ignore the most important race is the human race.”