Update – City of Alexandria, VA Public Hearing on Contrabands & Freedmen’s Cemetery

This post is an update for Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery descendants, Alexandria residents, and the public about new developments regarding the cemetery site. Located at 1001 S. Washington St, the Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery is the burial ground for more than 1,700 “contraband of war.” “Contrabands” was a term used for enslaved Africans seeking protection and freedom behind the Union Defenses in Alexandria during the Civil War.

Many of the enslaved men, women and children who made the arduous journey to Alexandria were eventually buried on this site – a site later desecrated by a gas station and an office building. In 2007, the City of Alexandria reclaimed the land, and in 2013, a cemetery memorial to Alexandria’s Contrabands and Freedmen will open on this site.

The Alexandria City Council would appreciate hearing from the descendants of those buried in the cemetery, and residents interested in Alexandria’s contraband history, as they move forward in naming this historic landmark. In the coming weeks, City Council discussions and a public hearing will be held about the formal name for the Cemetery memorial. The name currently used is “Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery Memorial”; however, the official name for the site has not yet been determined.
City Council wants to know your opinion about the use of the historic terms “contrabands” and “freedmens.” Your comments will assist Council as they determine the name for this landmark.

• Why Contrabands? This is a military term used during the Civil War. Contraband status was used to protect enslaved Africans who sought protection from the Union. By making enslaved Africans “contraband of war,” they could be protected and used to aid the Union cause. Enslaved Africans who were “contraband of war,” were considered property, and as such could not be returned to their masters. The use of “contraband” was not meant to be derogatory, but to reflect the transitory status of those seeking protection from Union forces.

• Why Freedmen? This term refers to African Americans before and after the Civil War. It indicates their status as free people. This term was in use before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but became a widely used word in the American lexicon with the 1865 creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau. In the 19th century, the terms “contraband” and “freedmen” were often used interchangeably.

These historic terms are part of our Nation’s “contraband heritage.” Please let the City Council know your views about their use as part of the name for the future memorial.

Comments may be emailed to Dr. Pamela Cressey, Director, City Archaeology, at pamela.cressey@alexandriava.gov. You may also want to attend one of the meetings listed below, and share your thoughts. Help the Alexandria make history, and preserve an important part of our city’s Civil War story.

Public Meetings and Events:
• Tuesday, May 22: Introduction of Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery Docket Item, Alexandria City Council Legislative meeting, 7 p.m., City Hall, 301 King St.
• Saturday, June 16: Alexandria City Council Public Hearing (public comment is invited), 7 p.m. – City Hall.
• Saturday, July 7: Groundbreaking Ceremony, Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery site, 1001 S. Washington St., 9 a.m.

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