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Conscious, Conscience, and Community: Alexandria’s Continuing Journey in Pursuit of African American Historical Justice

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When Pamela Cressey was appointed as City Archeologist for Alexandria, Virginia, in 1977, she found the city that called itself “America’s most historic city” primarily focused on historic sites related to George Washington and Robert E. Lee, both of whom played important parts in the city’s history. The city was proud of its past, but what was missing in a city with a 30% African American population was information about its African American history.

In a two-part program presented by AARP Virginia’s Tuesday Explorers series, held on August 3 and 10, 2021, Cressey shared how she worked with members of the Alexandria community over her 35-year career to help rediscover Alexandria’s African American past and help preserve this rich history for generations to come.

Alexandria is already unique in that its Archeology Commission is one of the few such commissions in the United States. What Cressey found within the community was a strong sense of what she describes as conscious, or personal awareness, and conscience, or a set of collective values based on moral standards, such as a sense of knowing right from wrong and the ability to do the right thing. Together, these characteristics formed a community of power to collectively act to identify and commemorate places of remembrance, even if those places were no longer physically present.

Cressey shared information about several key projects she worked on, along with a large team of local volunteers, to identify locations and tell the stories of African Americans in the city. The U.S. Census in 1790, for example, showed 52 free blacks in the city; by the 1810 Census, that number had grown to about 600. This paradox of free blacks in a slave state led to questions about who they were, where they lived, and how they gained their freedom. By careful examination of Census and tax records, researchers were able to develop a picture of African American life, especially before, during, and after the Civil War.

As a major port on the Potomac River, Alexandria became a key port in the domestic slave trade, especially after the District of Columbia outlawed slavery in 1862. The Bruin Slave Jail was located along a major turnpike that is now Duke Street, at what today is a popular local diner. Nearby is the Franklin and Armfield Slave Pen, named after a prominent slave dealer. Thanks in part to support from the Northern Virginia Urban League, this latter site is now the Freedom House Museum, a National Historic Landmark.

Research uncovered records of several lost African American neighborhoods. Census records from the late 18th and early 19th century identify The Bottoms as the city’s first African American neighborhood. The Alfred Street Baptist Church, built in 1818 and still standing today, is an important remainder of this neighborhood. Another identified neighborhood was Hayti, which has mostly since been redeveloped.

When the Alexandria Canal area was being redeveloped, the city worked with the developer to help preserve part of the area to commemorate the Cross Canal neighborhood. Cross Canal arose post-Civil War, consisting mainly of African Americans who migrated north from southern states, mostly to work on the waterfront. Today the area has a commemorative plaque.

After the Civil War, an African American neighborhood called The Fort grew around the vicinity of Fort Ward, a Union fort. During the 1950s and 60s, the city moved residents out of the area to establish the Fort Ward Park and Museum. After additional archaeological research, the city is in the process of developing an interpretive plan for the site to include the African American experiences.

After federal troops invaded Alexandria during the Civil War, placing the city under Union control, about 20,000 enslaved African Americans, called “contraband,” migrated north to the city. The Shiloh Baptist Church, established in 1863, worked to help transition these refugees from slavery to freedom and service. In 1861, the federal government established L’Overture Hospital to serve this large African American population, one of the first hospitals in the U.S. established specifically for this purpose.

By studying hospital records, researchers established that about 200 U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) were buried in Alexandria National Cemetery. These graves originally had only wooden markers but were later replaced with stone markers, indicated with USCT. This was the first U. S. military burial site for African American troops.

During the 1980s, Cressey became aware that a site being considered for a city homeless shelter was an old cemetery. Research identified the site as the Silver Leaf Society Cemetery, the first known site for African American burials in the city. Instead of the homeless shelter, the city established the site as the Alexandria African American Heritage Park, where sculpture and commemorative markers provide a peaceful place to reflect and remember.

One of the most significant projects undertaken by the city was the site now known as the Contrabands and Freedom Cemetery. In 1864 following the Civil War, the federal government provided land for the establishment of an African American cemetery, to accommodate the large number of freed slaves pouring into Alexandria. Five years later, following the end of military rule of the city by the federal government, the site was abandoned, and it remained neglected for years. A gas station, an office building, and a portion of the Capital Beltway were built on the site.

By the 1980s, no known descendant families had knowledge of burials at the site. But this all changed when a city historian discovered meticulous records of burials kept by a minister. These records included where and when the deaths took place, as well as cause of deaths, such as disease, malnutrition, smallpox, flu, etc. Through genealogical research, many descendants were identified.

When the gas station and office building were ultimately dismantled, 540 grave sites were revealed. The graves were not excavated, but only exposed to the point they were recognizable. Many of the graves were children. Researchers found that in 1865, the military relocated 118 USCT remains to Alexandria National Cemetery. When these soldiers were reinterred, the dates listed on the markers were the reburial dates, not the original dates of death, likely because the original dates were not known at the time.

When the city re-established the site, they wanted to assure it would be a cemetery, not a park. They also wanted the site to be interpretive, so attendees could learn and remember. Finally, they wanted the site to be a place of beauty. The site includes a striking dynamic sculpture and a marker listing the names of all the burials, indicating markers by names where descendants have been found.

Both parts of Cressey’s presentation are available on AARP Virginia’s YouTube channel. For more information about archaeological history in Alexandria, including many of the locations mentioned, please visit the Alexandria Archaeological Museum webpage.

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