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After years of neglect, Alexandria starting to restore historic Black cemetery

Douglass Cemetery has been damaged in recent flooding, photo courtesy Michael Johnson

Alexandria is finally making progress on fixing issues as a historic Black cemetery thanks in part to a city employee who spent years flagging ongoing problems at the site.

Douglass Memorial Cemetery (1421 Wilkes Street) has faced repeated flooding that has already washed away some of the grave markings.

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 languished for years in disrepair until, at the behest of other descendants of those buried in the cemetery, city employee Michael Johnson started rallying the local community around fixing some of these issues and honoring the city’s dead.

At a City Council meeting earlier this year, Council member John Chapman called ongoing restoration efforts a “labor of love.”

“It’s great to see the work that’s going to be done this upcoming weekend, Juneteenth, but also city staff — shoutout to the Office of Historic Alexandria and T&ES — there’s an upcoming community meeting to talk about the next steps for Douglass Cemetary,” Chapman said. “I know that has been a process that’s been a couple of years in the making. It’s good to see that moving and getting the support and energy it needs.”

Johnson said the city started making minor, temporary repairs to the gazebo and walkway at the cemetery this week. Some of the bigger repairs are scheduled to kick off over the next two or three weeks.

“Right now, looking at taking care of the drainage problem, and then we’re going to move toward repairing some of the most damaged headstones that need to be cleaned or repaired,” Johnson said. “We’ve been making a lot of strides with the help of the Office of Historic Alexandria.”

A Juneteenth remembrance event is being held at the cemetery tomorrow (Saturday) from 10-11 a.m.

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