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Historic Black cemetery under threat of being washed away in Old Town

Michael Johnson’s grandfather, Albert, died two months before Michael was born and is buried somewhere in Douglass Memorial Cemetery. Where he is exactly buried is unclear, since Albert’s gravestone and several others have been lost as recent flooding threatens to wash away a historic Black cemetery.

The cemetery has been a burial site for Black Alexandrians since 1827 and was named after Frederick Douglass after the abolitionist leader died in 1895. Records who that around 2,000 people were buried in the cemetery until burials stopped in 1974.

The cemetery fell into disrepair for a few years and the number of grave markers for those buried in the cemetery is already low. A city report says the number of well-defined graves is close to 10%, and the lack of intact vaults or caskets reflects the socioeconomic limitations of the families. It’s a situation Johnson said has been exacerbated by recent flooding, where some of the few remaining markers are disappearing.

“It’s been flooding for years,” Johnson said. “When I was a kid, we never heard of it flooding, and then the apartment building was built… Now it’s getting real bad.”

Among those missing are Albert Johnson, his brother Wallace “Jack” Johnson, and Michael Johnson’s uncle Alfred.

“I can only find three of the six headstone markers in my family there,” Johnson said. “Where are the rest of the people’s who are buried there?”

The city has faced frequent flooding over the last few years, including floods earlier this month. After some of the more recent flooding, Johnson said more of the grave markers have gone missing; potentially buried in dirt elsewhere in the cemetery.

There are some complications when it comes to fixing the problem, though.

A city archeologist noted in an email that a stream channel historically ran through the site where there are water problems today. Though the grass is cut and the trash is picked up by the city and the Office of Historic Alexandria, the archeologist also said the cemetery is technically abandoned and not owned by the city, which makes it difficult for the city to implement repairs.

Johnson said something should be done to preserve the memory and peace of those buried in Douglass Cemetery.

“It’s gotten worse,” Johnson said. “Cemeteries should be a sanctuary for where we respect and give the upmost attention to it.”

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