Roses are placed at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial after the official dedication in Alexandria on Saturday. The memorial honors the hundreds of African Americans who died in the city during the Civil War. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Hundreds had gathered, some coming from as far as California, to dedicate the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery in Alexandria. Their journey to find out a little more about their family histories had unexpectedly led them to the city’s history — and a fight to preserve it.
They all had something in common: great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents or other long-lost forebears among the 1,700 African Americans buried here, many after fleeing north to Alexandria during the Civil War to escape slavery. The spot’s significance was buried along with the bodies. Wooden markers had decayed, and the land was covered over by a gas station, office buildings, the Capital Beltway — forgotten by many until the construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
“I remember playing cowboys and Indians here,” Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) told the crowd. “We had no idea.”
Louise Massoud and Lillie Finklea, both 75, began working together to preserve the cemetery in 1997 after reading a Washington Post article about how an old grave site might affect plans to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.