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The Contrabands and Freedman Cemetery at 1001 S. Washington St. in Alexandria, Virginia was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on August 15, 2012.[1]

For African American escaped slaves, the military occupation of Alexandria during the American Civil War created opportunity on an unprecedented scale. As Federal troops extended their occupation of the seceded states, escaped slaves flooded into Union-controlled areas. Safely behind Union lines, the cities of Alexandria and Washington offered not only comparative freedom, but employment. Over the course of the war, Alexandria was transformed by the Union occupiers into a major supply depot and transport and hospital center, all under army control.[2]

Because the escaped slaves were still legally property until the abolition of slavery, they were labeled as contrabands to prevent their being returned to their masters. Contrabands took positions with the army as construction workers, nurses and hospital stewards, longshoremen, painters, wood cutters, teamsters, laundresses, cooks, gravediggers, personal servants, and ultimately as soldiers and sailors. According to one statistic, the population of Alexandria had exploded to 18,000 by the fall of 1863 – an increase of 10,000 people in 16 months.[2]

As of ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, Alexandria County’s black population was more than 8,700, or about half the total number of residents in the County. This newly enfranchised constituency provided the support necessary to elect the first black Alexandrians to the City Council and the Virginia Legislature.[3]

The population of contrabands flooding into Alexandria during the Union occupation included many who were destitute, malnourished and in poor health. Once in Alexandria, the contrabands were housed in barracks and hastily assembled shantytowns. In the close quarters with poor sanitation, smallpox and typhoid outbreaks were prevalent and death was common. In February 1864, after hundreds of contrabands and freedmen had perished, the commander of the Alexandria military district, General John P. Slough, seized a parcel of undeveloped land at the corner of South Washington and Church Streets from a pro-Confederate owner to be used as a cemetery specifically for burial of contrabands. Burials started in March that year.[4]

The cemetery operated under General Slough's command. Its oversight was supervised by Alexandria’s Superintendent of Contrabands, the Rev. Albert Gladwin, who made arrangements for burials. Each grave was identified with a whitewashed, wooden grave marker.[3] In 1868, after Congress ended most functions of the Freedmen's Bureau, the cemetery was closed; and the property was returned to its original owners. Eventually, after the grave markers had rotted and ownership had transferred several times, the property was redeveloped for commercial use. During its five years of operation, about 1800 contrabands and freedmen were buried in the cemetery.[4]

Memorial - construction photo (late 2012)

Beginning in 1987, when memory of the cemetery was revived, the City of Alexandria began the process of saving the cemetery to create a memorial park. During 2008, submissions in a design competition for the memorial were received from 20 countries, and a design for the memorial was selected. As of late 2008, construction of the memorial was underway.[5] As Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, the cemetery was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in August, 2012.

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