Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery – Alexandria, Virginia - Atlas Obscura

Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery

Once forgotten and built over, this historic African American cemetery now houses a poignant memorial. 


This graveyard was opened during the Civil War to bury the contrabands (escaped slaves) and freedmen who were fleeing to Alexandria, a Union-occupied city, on the northern boundary of the Confederacy. Around 1,700 African Americans were laid to rest within its grounds.

Though the last recorded burial took place in 1869, African Americans continued to use it for unofficial burials. But its location and purpose were soon all but forgotten by the city. Mention of the cemetery disappeared from maps by the 1940s. The land was sold and resold, and finally a gas station and office building were constructed on the site.

In 1987, mention of the graveyard was rediscovered in old papers. Decades later, the buildings were razed and the site once again became a hallowed place and memorial, though only about one third of the graves remained intact.

A statue at the center called The Path of Thorns and Roses shows people fighting to break free from a snarl of vines, which represents the fight to escape slavery. Walls covered in bronze plaques bearing the names of the buried dead stand nearby, framing the foundation of the former gas station.

This graveyard stands in stark contrast to the graveyard across the street, which is from the same time period and belongs to a white Catholic church.

Know Before You Go

If you can't visit, you can use Google Maps to take a virtual tour.