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Lillie Finklea Honored by Historical Society

In this year of the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, it was fitting that the Alexandria Historical Society's 2003 History Award went to a individual who has worked tirelessly to gain recognition for the prime benefactors of that war.

In 1997, Lillie Finklea, the same year she began volunteering at Alexandria Archeology, began transcribing records pertaining to the people who may have been buried in the Freedmen's Cemetery. She transformed that task into a dream to have the entire cemetery returned to public ownership and restored as a memorial park.

That dream materialized as the organization known as the Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery. Lillie Finklea has served as its president since its founding.

Presenting the award last Wednesday at The Lyceum, former Alexandria mayor and now state Sen. Patricia S. Ticer (D-30th) noted, "Lillie's motto is never be satisfied with just getting by. Her name is synonymous with the Freedmen's Cemetery."

Finklea, a graduate of Parker Gray High School, has been a resident of Alexandria for the past 61 years. Her efforts with the Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery included placement of the site on the Virginia African American Heritage Trail, initial archeological investigations at the site resulting in the discovery of 75 graves, and recognition of the site by the National Park Service as part of the National Underground Railroad Network.

FREEDMEN'S CEMETERY served as a burial ground for some 1,800 African Americans who came to Alexandria during the Civil War in search of freedom. In 1946, the parcel, at the intersection of Church and Washington streets, was sold for commercial enterprise. It is currently buried under the Mobile gasoline station and other buildings at that location.

As part of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project's South Washington Street Urban Deck element, the site will be cleared and will become the Freedmen's Cemetery Park. In recognition of that accomplishment, Finklea has also received the National Association of Colored Persons, Alexandria Branch, Community Service Award. This led to successful discussion with city leaders to assure the site will be preserved as the park.

In accepting the award, Finklea acknowledged, "You're only as good as the people working with you. I have had a top crew working with me. And the citizens of Alexandria rallied around this effort. It has been a humbling experience for me to work on this project."

THE AWARD, presented annually since 1993, honors those who have made noteworthy contributions to the preservation of the historic, cultural and artistic heritage of Alexandria. It includes a proclamation by the mayor and City Council, as well as an engraved silver tray.

Also recognized at the ceremony were Anne Smith Paul for "selflessly giving her time and person to the preservation of Alexandria's history and culture." She has been a longtime volunteer with Historic Alexandria.

As part of that culture, the Society made a special award to The Alexandria Harmonizers, four-time winners of the International Award for barbershop quartets. It was in recognition of the treatise "Breathless Moments, The Alexandria Harmonizers, 1948-1998."

This special award acknowledged the efforts of John Hanna, Gary Smith and the late Wilbur Sparks, the editors of the work that chronicles the first 50 years of the Alexandria, Virginia Chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America Inc.

It noted, "The Alexandria Harmonizers have successfully preserved and encouraged barbershop quartet singing in Alexandria and beyond. And the editors of "Breathless Moments" have successfully preserved the historic, cultural and artistic heritage of Alexandria." During the ceremonies a quartet from the organization sang several selections, including the opening national anthem.

IN ADDITION TO ITS usual presentation of awards to high-school students who have shown outstanding prowess in history, especially American History, the Society named its first recipient of the Junior Historian Award. It was presented to Paul Hooff Cooksey Jr., a student at Carl Sandburg Middle School in Mount Vernon.

Presenting the award to Cooksey was teacher Gwen Jones, who selected the winner. She emphasized that Cooksey had "achieved all A's in American History as well as writing a significant historical note paper."

Susan Preis, co-chair of the Society's History and High School Awards Committee with Jean T. Federico, director, Historic Alexandria, named this year's four high-school award recipients. "Each year one student is chosen from each of Alexandria's high schools. Their selection is based on their excellence in history, communications and other areas of study," Preis explained.

Ticer noted, in presenting each with a plaque and engraved Jefferson Cup, that the 2003 winners were all female. The recipients were Adrienne Allen, St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School; Katie Arnold, Episcopal High School; Laura Olsen, Bishop Ireton High School; and Melinda Snow, T.C.Williams High School.