It’s one of the biggest mysteries in Old Town. How did a gas station end up being built over a cemetery? Answering that question involved following a bizarre chain of events including Confederate sympathizers, the Catholic Church and a segregation-era City Council. In the end, there may be more questions than answers.
"I’m not sure we’ll ever know why this happened," said City Archeologist Pam Cressey. "People have been wondering about this for many years."
City Historian Michael Miller discovered the location of the cemetery 20 years ago by accident, leafing through the pages of old copies of the Alexandria Gazette. When he came to Jan. 5, 1894, he saw an attention-grabbing headline: "Sensational Story." In the stilted Victorian language of the era, the article detailed the location of "a graveyard containing the bones of defunct colored people." The Gazette located the cemetery "at the southern end of Washington Street … and directly opposite the Catholic cemetery."
The shocking discovery prompted years of research, unraveling a bizarre chain of events that involved the land being seized from a Confederate sympathizer by the federal government for use as a freedman’s cemetery in 1864. The land passed through several owners before being donated to the Catholic Church, which put a stipulation on the deed that the land not be used for a gas station. For some reason, the stipulation was revoked in the 1955 and the City Council later approved the location of a gas station on the property.
"It doesn’t make a lick of sense," said Miller. "I’ve never heard of a cemetery being rezoned for commercial use."
Now that the 1950s-era building has been demolished, the city is ready to hold an elaborate rededication ceremony to honor the 1,800 African-American men, women, and children buried there from 1864 to 1869. With 20 years of hindsight and a massive collection of research on the topic, Miller now thinks that it’s possible the City Council members of the 1940s and 1950s knew a cemetery was on the property and chose to look the other way.
"The tax map from the 1930s identified the property as ‘Old Negro Cemetery.’ So all they needed to do was look at their own records," said Miller. "I don’t think the City Council acted totally out of ignorance."
<b>THE STORY OF HOW</B> the Alexandria Freedman’s Cemetery became a Mobil Gas station and then transformed into a memorial involves centuries of Alexandria history. Before the Civil War, Alexandria was home to the largest slave-trading business in America. During the federal occupation of the city, many Confederate sympathizers left town, seeking shelter further South. Meanwhile, the federal government seized land for its own purposes — including the plot across from the Catholic cemetery on South Washington Street. Records show that burials on the site began in 1864.
"Part of the problem with tracing who knew what about this land is that the federal government never left a deed that explained a cemetery was located here," said Cressey. "They just confiscated it."
Miller’s research shows that before the war, the land was owned by Francis Smith — a prominent local attorney. In January 1864, Brigadier Gen. John Slough issued an order to seize Smith’s land, creating a burial yard for African-American soldiers who were fighting for the Union. After the war, the cemetery was operated by the Freedman’s Bureau. Between 1864 and 1869, Miller has concluded, about 1,800 African-American men, women, and children were buried there. The temporary wooden markers identifying the burials were probably gone by the 1870s.
When Smith died in 1877, the property was inherited by his daughter, who gave it to the Catholic Church in 1917. On June 24, 1946, the Alexandria Gazette reported that the City Council would be taking up 24 rezoning designations during a meeting the newspaper called "rezoning night at City Hall." All 24 of the properties were located on Washington Street, and all were changed from what was then known as "A-residential" to "D-commercial." Although the Freedman’s Cemetery was on the list, no mention was made in the newspaper about the presence of a graveyard.
"It is unreasonable to maintain a residential classification on a heavy arterial highway," said Planning Commission member Edward Kelly at the time.
<B>BISHOP PETER IRETON</B> sold the property on Sept. 3, 1946 to George Landrith with certain restrictions on the property. It forbade "the sale of alcoholic beverages" on the land as well as the presence of an "automobile service station." Nevertheless, Tidewater Associated Oil Co. submitted an application to build a gas station on the property on July 13, 1955. On Aug. 9 1955, Bishop Ireton revoked the restriction.
"This is perhaps the biggest mystery in these events," said Cressey. "Why did the bishop revoke the restrictions? We just don’t know the answer to that question."
The 1958 city directory shows the first evidence of a gas station being located on the land, listing the property at 1001 South Washington St. as "Harper’s Flying A." In 1958, it was renamed "Charley’s Flying A." In 1967, Tidewater sold the gas station to Mobil, which operated it until the building was demolished earlier this year.
"When the gas station was built, black folks just weren’t relevant," said Lillie Finklea, director of Friends of the Freedman’s Cemetery. "But we’re relevant now."