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Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria First Site in Virginia Recognized by African American Civil Rights Network

The Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial is dedicated to honoring more than 1,700 people of African descent buried here during and following the Civil War, as well as those who may have been laid to rest after the cemetery officially closed. (Photo: Visit Alexandria)
The Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial is dedicated to honoring more than 1,700 people of African descent buried here during and following the Civil War, as well as those who may have been laid to rest after the cemetery officially closed. (Photo: Visit Alexandria)

ALEXANDRIA, VA – On June 28, Alexandria’s Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial became one of the newest sites listed by the National Park Service in the African American Civil Rights Network.

The Network’s collection of 57 powerful historic resources from across the country commemorates, honors, and interprets the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the continuing struggle for racial equality. Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial is the oldest and first site in Virginia to be added to the network.

Freedmen's Cemetery Memorial Plaque. (Photo: Richard E. Miller)
Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial Plaque. (Photo: Richard E. Miller)

Inside the fence line of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, erected in 2014, echo themes of African American Civil Rights: self-emancipation, righting racial injustice, and civic protest. The Alexandria memorial preserves more than 600 known graves and commemorates 1,711 African Americans interred there during the 1860s.

Genealogical work connected the cemetery’s Book of Records (listing the names of those buried in the cemetery) with more than 1,000 descendants both within the Alexandria community and across the United States.

In 1864, the U.S. Army established this burial ground for contrabands and freedmen, making it one of the few final resting places of its kind in the country. Shortly after, the cemetery became the site of Alexandria’s first known Civil Rights expression.

Following the burial of 118 United States Colored Troops (USCT) in Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, outraged USCT protested and petitioned for their fellow soldiers’ right to be buried at what is today Alexandria National Cemetery. As a result of their action, the soldiers were reburied in Alexandria National Cemetery. “This is an incredibly important honor for the cemetery to be recognized in the continuum of the fight for racial justice in Alexandria and across the country,” commented Director of Alexandria’s Black History Museum, Audrey Davis.

The nomination of the site was initiated and developed by the Alexandria Archaeological Commission with support from the City of Alexandria City Council and the Office of Historic Alexandria. Eleanor Breen, City Archaeologist, said, “So many people have and continue to contribute to the history and memory of the site – the Alexandria Archaeological Commission, residents, descendants, the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery, historians and archaeologists, and more – and this honor would not be possible without their dedication.”

Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places, the Virginia Landmarks Register, and is listed on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Commission Chair Ivy Whitlatch said, “We’re thrilled to have the Cemetery Memorial included in a network with these nationally significant Civil Rights sites.” A public dedication will be held at the cemetery, 1001 S. Washington Street, at 8 a.m. on July 24. Additional details will be provided on the Historic Alexandria calendar.

For more information on the African American Civil Rights Network, visit https://www.nps.gov/subjects/civilrights/african-american-civil-rights-network.htm. To learn more about the history of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, visit . 

Appointed by City Council, the 15-member Alexandria Archaeological Commission develops goals and priorities for Alexandria’s archaeological heritage. The commission works closely with citizens, government agencies, developers, and teachers to promote archaeology in the city.

The Office of Historic Alexandria preserves and shares the past to enrich the present and inspire the future. For more information about the Office of Historic Alexandria, visit alexandriava.gov/Historic.   

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Mary Wadland

Mary Wadland is the Publisher and Editor in Chief of The Zebra Press, founded by her in 2010. Originally from Delray Beach, Florida, Mary is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Hollins College in Roanoke, VA and has lived and worked in the Alexandria publishing community since 1987.

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