Douglass Memorial Cemetery (1421 Wilkes Street) has long suffered flooding and neglect, but the City of Alexandria said plans to address issues at the cemetery will be presented at a meeting next week.
City employee Michael Johnson has been ringing alarm bells about the state of the cemetery for years. The cemetery has been a burial site for Black Alexandrians since 1827. Around 2,000 people were buried in the cemetery before burials stopped in 1974.
A city report said only 10% of the graves in the cemetery are well-defined, thanks in part to grave markers going missing and a lack of intact vaults and caskets.
The city sought funding earlier this year to support an oral history project related to the project.
The city said plans for the cemetery will be presented at the Nannie J. Lee Memorial Recreation Center (1108 Jefferson Street) from 6-7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 5.
According to a release:
Douglass Cemetery, located at 1421 Wilkes Street, has several preservation issues, including flooding and drainage problems.
The City of Alexandria staff from the Office of Historic Alexandria, Department of Project Implementation, Transportation and Environmental Services, and Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities are working to address these preservation issues. The Social Responsibility Group and the Friends of Douglass Cemetery have dedicated their efforts to raise awareness of the significance of the historic African American cemetery and resolve the preservation issues. The City has developed plans to implement solutions that are respectful and appropriate to the sensitive nature of the site. City Staff will present an update on the plans to address the causes of flooding and the anticipated timeline for the work.
The base of the Appomattox statue has resurfaced atop Confederate graves in Alexandria.
More than two years ago, the Appomattox statue was removed from Old Town by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). The base was moved into Bethel Cemetery last summer, while the statute itself reportedly remains in storage.
Bethel Cemetery owner James Clink wants the statute and base reunited atop the graves of 10 members of Col. John Singleton Mosby’s Rangers and 15 soldiers of the Confederate States of America (CSA) 17th Virginia Regiment from the Alexandria area.
Click has been working with the UDC to get the statue moved to the cemetery, and had the base of the statue moved in last summer. He has also installed a number of security cameras around the base.
“Personally, I’d like to see it up there myself,” Click told ALXnow. “It’s a piece of history. Right now it’s somewhere in a warehouse in storage. They won’t say where, just that it’s in a big crate.”
Appomattox was erected by the Robert E. Lee Camp at the intersection of Prince and S. Washington Streets in 1889 and depicted an unarmed CSA soldier facing south with his head bowed. The names of CSA soldiers from Alexandria who died in the Civil War are carved on the base of the statue.
Fruitless attempts were made to remove the statue over the years and multiple drivers crashed their cars into it. The statue was toppled once by a crash in 1988. After getting the go-ahead from then-Gov. Ralph Northam in 2020, UDC quietly removed the statue.
Mayor Justin Wilson says before it was removed, City Council wanted it to be relocated to either a cemetery or museum.
“We did say all along that we felt it belonged in a museum or graveyard,” Wilson said. “This sounds like an issue for the private property owner to work through.”
Neighbor Diane Devendorf lives near the cemeteries and finds the Appomattox statue and its base offensive.
“I think that it’s very disrespectful to place that statue there without any regard for the families that have loved ones surrounding the location,” Devendorf said. “There are traditional African American cemeteries right up the street and there is no way to get to them without passing what will be the Appomattox eyesore.”
Bethel Cemetery is part of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, which is a collection of 13 cemeteries located near the Carlyle neighborhood. More than 35,000 people are buried in the cemeteries, including previously enslaved men and women, U.S. Colored Troops, thousands of Union troops and CSA troops. There are nearly 11,000 people buried at Bethel Cemetery, which was founded in 1885 and remains an active cemetery.
The cemeteries were founded in the early 19th century in response to a Yellow Fever epidemic that resulted in more than 300 deaths, according to David Heiby, who conducts tours at the sites and is the superintendent of the Presbyterian Cemetery.
The following lists the 13 established cemeteries in the area and the years they were founded:
- Penny Hill Municipal Cemetery (1796)
- Christ Church Cemetery (1808)
- Trinity Cemetery (1809)
- St. Paul’s Cemetery (1809)
- The Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium (1809)
- Alexandria National Cemetery (1862)
- Methodist Protestant Cemetery (1829)
- Home of Peace Cemetery (1857)
- Union Cemetery of the Washington Street Methodist Church (1860)
- Bethel Cemetery and Little Bethel Cemetery (1885)
- African American Heritage Park (1889)
- Douglas Memorial Cemetery (1895)
- Agudas Achim Cemetery (1933)
Alexandria was spared from significant flooding this week after remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through the East Coast. The only flooding found was on lower King Street in Old Town, where businesses laid sandbags at windows and doorways.
“We’re open inside, but if you want to eat you’re probably going to have to come barefoot,” a hostess at Mai Thai told ALXnow on Wednesday.
Our top story this week was, for the second week in a row, on the recent brawl inside Alexandria City High School.
It’s a three-day weekend, and on Sunday the annual Old Town Festival of Speed & Style will bring crowds to marvel at classic and beautiful rides along King Street. Monday is Labor Day, and the city will operate on a holiday schedule.
In this week’s poll we asked how satisfied readers are with Alexandria City Public Schools since reopening on August 24. A majority (31%) reported being extremely unsatisfied with the school system, while 29% said ACPS has done a good job, 25% are extremely satisfied and 14% are unhappy overall.
- Pedestrian struck and killed on N. Beauregard Street in West End
- City could extend pandemic-support for local businesses into 2022
- City lays out goals for Arlandria-Chirilagua preservation
- Salon Meraki will quadruple in size when it expands this fall in Old Town
- New policy could open up more ‘co-living’ options in Alexandria
- Pets rescued from Hurricane Ida in Louisiana up for adoption in Alexandria
- The Hive is expanding to a new location in Old Town, also planning men’s apparel shop
- Man arrested after brief chase leads to hit-and-run near Holmes Run
- Fire Department pay battle heats up as firefighters say staffing issues put public safety at risk
- Parents concerned in opening days as ACPS works on construction projects at Mount Vernon Community School
- West End school purchase headed to Planning Commission review
- Alexandria man on run from police for more than a year after theft from gym in Carlyle
- Mae’s Market & Cafe opens in Old Town
- BREAKING: Video shows brawl at Alexandria City High School cafeteria just two days after school starts
- 13-year-old hit by car while walking home from school in Del Ray
- Fox put George Washington Middle School into a lock-in today
- Man arrested for spending spree after finding wallet in Bradlee Shopping Center parking lot
- No injuries or arrests after shots fired on Duke Street
- ACPS Superintendent Hutchings asks community to hit the brakes on email campaigns
- Alexandria man arrested for beating up ex-girlfriend in Old Town North
- Alexandria sees cases rise in August and warns of COVID-19 in schools
- Alexandria man convicted for possessing child porn and violating parole
- Historic Black cemetery under threat of being washed away in Old Town
- Man swallows two bags of drugs and runs from police in Old Town
Have a safe weekend!
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.”
(Updated at 3:20 p.m.) While Alexandria heads out on ghosts tours for Halloween, local archaeologists are busy scouting for secret burials under two historic cemeteries.
Archeologists with the city’s Office of Historic Alexandria are working to pinpoint where coffins and headstones may have been swallowed by the changing landscaping in the Penny Hill and Douglass cemeteries as they plan drainage maintenance for the sites.
“In a couple places you see the very tippy tops of headstones just barely peeking above the dirt and you realize that there’s an entire headstone sunken in 2-3 feet. So you look around and go ‘Oh my god this entire cemetery is slowly sinking into the ground,'” Benjamin Skolnik, an archeologist with the city, told ALXnow of the issues facing the two cemeteries.
“A lot of the markers were probably made of wood and have since decayed and evaporated into the mists of time,” he said, adding that others buried in the Penny Hill potter’s field often couldn’t afford a marker.
Fixing the drainage issues at both sites causing could mean digging ditches — and right now that would be impossible without disrupting lost burial sites.
Penny Hill was founded in 1796 but start records only date back to 1912. Those records indicate 906 people were buried in the last century, but today cemetery is an empty, grassy field.
And at Douglass, where records indicate the first person was buried in 1895, there are about 650 standing headstones, but over 1900 names recorded in burial records.
“There’s three times the number of people written in the cemeteries as there are standing headstones, so the question is where is everybody?” said Skolnik.
This summer, the state awarded Alexandria a $10,500 grant to study what graves could be underneath the grass at both cemeteries. Now the survey work is underway as teams of archeologists rove the grounds with ground-penetrating radar (the same kind used to find dinosaurs) and electrical conductivity meters to identify burials by the metal hinges on caskets, the shafts dug to bury caskets, as well as skeletal remains or headstones.
Initial data from Douglass confirms some areas with no standing stones do have graves underneath, and in some cases, more than one grave.
“We know that they were selling what they referred to as “half-graves” which is basically that you stack them,” explained Skolnik. “The first one goes down 8 feet. The next one goes down 4 feet.”
The surveys haven’t gone without a hitch, however. Yesterday (Tuesday’s) rain storm cancelled one day of work, and nearby utilities can interfere with the equipment.
“We ran into a small problem on Saturday when we started our survey at Penny Hill,” said Skolnik. “The southeast corner of Penny Hill is right next to a power substation [which] was playing havoc with the sensitive instruments.”
The surveys are in addition to the Alexandria archaeologists’ other responsibilities, including examining possible remains and objects buried under development sites — work that led to the excavation and reconstruction of several long-buried ships.
“It’s probably not a surprise that there are lot of archeology resources in Alexandria,” said Skolnik. “There’s a lot going on under the ground.”