By Francesco De Salvatore
Alexandria, VA – In late 2022, the Office of Historic Alexandria, the City department charged with conserving, interpreting, and promoting Alexandria’s past, announced its newest program, The Alexandria Oral History Center. The center is a community-driven collaboration to document and preserve the memories and stories of Alexandria. It provides residents with training and resources to conduct oral history interviews and community history projects. The center also maintains a public archive to preserve oral histories for future generations.
Since its launch, the center has rolled out various aspects of its program and begun to record Alexandrians from all walks of life. Recently, the center has been working on the Frederick Douglass Memorial Cemetery Oral History Initiative.
The Frederick Douglass Memorial Cemetery was established in 1895 by the Douglass Cemetery Association as a segregated, nondenominational African American cemetery named in memory of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). It has long been an essential historic resource that helps tell the story of Alexandria’s African American community.
Records suggest that over 2,000 people have been buried in Douglass Cemetery, yet fewer than 700 grave markers are visible today. Some gravestones have fallen over or sunk into the ground. Many burials may have been indicated with only an impermanent wooden marker or with no marker at all. The last known burial was in 1975 when the cemetery association dissolved. But although the association no longer manages or maintains the cemetery, it has not been forgotten by the friends and families of those interred there.
Alexandria residents and City staff have identified several issues that threaten the preservation of this site, including drainage problems and areas of standing water, as well as the condition of the burial markers. Staff from the Office of Historic Alexandria, Department of Project Implementation, Transportation and Environmental Services, and Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities are working to address these concerns. The City received a $500,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Historic Preservation to address the drainage issue.
Concurrent with efforts to remediate the cemetery physically, the Alexandria Oral History Center launched the Frederick Douglass Memorial Cemetery Oral History Initiative. Together with the Friends of Frederick Douglass Memorial Cemetery, a group led by Alexandrian Michael Johnson, the oral history initiative will document individuals buried in the cemetery and their descendants to honor their lives and create public programs telling various aspects of the cemetery’s history.
Michael Johnson has worked for years to raise awareness of the significance of the cemetery and its preservation issues. The center is working with Johnson’s group to create a scope-of-work community agreement that will outline specific details of what stakeholders of the cemetery want the oral history initiative to accomplish.
In January 2023, two interns from Howard University, Rachel Craddolph and Courtney Smith, started helping to complete this first phase. When the scope of work has been finalized, the collecting of oral histories and archival materials will begin in spring 2023. Now, the City and the Office of Historic Alexandria is collaborating with the Friends of Frederick Douglass Memorial Cemetery and neighboring community associations to assist in caring for the cemetery, including lawn mowing and trash collection.
To stay updated about Frederick Douglass Memorial Cemetery, go to www.alexandriava.gov/historic-sites/douglass-memorial-cemetery. If you would like to be included in a quarterly newsletter or be involved with the initiative, please reach out to Michael Johnson at [email protected] and Francesco De Salvatore at [email protected].