By Francis Chung, Pentagram Staff PhotojournalistMay 24, 2017
While the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial may not be one of the National Capital Region's better-known historical sites, it certainly stands amongst the most poignantly fascinating.
Located six miles south of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Alexandria, Va.'s Old Town district, the memorial marks the site where more than 1,700 freed African-American slaves -- or "contrabands," as they were once known -- and black Union Soldiers were buried during and shortly after the Civil War.
During the war, thousands of slaves fled Confederate territory and took refuge in Union-occupied Alexandria. Most of the Freedmen faced decrepit living conditions in barracks and makeshift settlements, and rampant disease claimed the lives of many.
To provide a burial ground for the dead, the federal government confiscated an abandoned pasture from a family with Confederate sympathies. The first burial took place in 1864, and the last in 1869.
In the ensuing decades, the property changed hands numerous times, and the wooden grave markers gradually fell into disrepair. As above-ground traces wore away, the cemetery was eventually forgotten, and the cemetery had disappeared from local maps and records by the 1940s.
Many of the graves were desecrated or destroyed by developments that took place on or around the site beginning in 1955, including the erection of a gas station and office building on the burial ground, the paving of Washington Street and the construction of the Capital Beltway.
In 1987, the cemetery was rediscovered through research by Alexandria city historian T. Michael Miller. Archeological remote sensing detected the presence of graves beneath the gas station and office building in 1997, leading to the formation of Friends of Freedmen Cemetery, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and commemorating the site.
The City of Alexandria reacquired the land in 2007 and demolished the structures that had been built upon it, opening the way for further archeological investigations that uncovered the overall layout of the cemetery, the location of many of the graves and numerous physical artifacts.
In 2008, local architect C.J. Howard won an open competition held by the city to design a memorial on the site.
Based on Howard's framework, the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial was dedicated on Sept. 6, 2014.
The evocative memorial is crowned by Mario Chiodo's monumental bronze sculpture, The Path of Thorns and Roses, which features figural representations of Oppression, Struggle, Sacrifice, Loss, Compassion and Hope.
Adjacent to the sculpture, the names of those known to have been interred at the cemetery are inscribed on a pair of monolithic stone walls, which also house relief sculptures and historical information.
Throughout the grassy, 1.5-acre site, stones mark the locations of the approximately 540 graves -- out of a total of more than 1,700 -- that archeologists have been able to identify. As it is no longer possible to link individuals with specific burial plots, the graves bear somber, anonymous inscriptions such as "Grave of a Child."
At the northeast corner of the cemetery, a stone plaque identifies an area where black Soldiers were once laid to rest, deepening the resonance of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial for today's military community.
Pentagram staff photojournalist Francis Chung can be reached at email@example.com.