In the heavy, humid evening air, dozens of people streamed through the gates of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery in Alexandria’s Old Town district last week for the first event of the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice.
Organized by the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Britain’s North American colonies, the two-day pilgrimage featured a series of memorials, marches and services across the state, from Alexandria (just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.) to Abingdon (deep in the heart of Appalachia, near the border with Tennessee).
This journey of remembrance and healing began where the journeys of many victims of the slave trade ended. As its name suggests, the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery is not a typical graveyard. In fact, until 2007, it was the site of a gas station and office building. But it contains the remains of about 1,800 African Americans who fled to Union-occupied Alexandria during the Civil War to escape slavery. Considered “contraband of war” by the Union, they found freedom in Alexandria but endured squalid living conditions in makeshift refugee camps. Already weak and sick from lives of hard labor, thousands died.
Today, the cemetery is an open field, with some of the graves marked with stones saying simply “GRAVE OF AN ADULT” or “GRAVE OF A CHILD.” A memorial with a statue and a wall containing some of the names of those buried there stand in the centre. The recently re-dedicated cemetery embodies the theme of the pilgrimage itself: unearthing a painful history that has lain beneath the surface, and restoring the sacred dignity of those who were dehumanised by a belief system that survives in different forms to this day.