Lillie Finklea, Freedmen’s Cemetery trailblazer dies at 83

Lillie Finklea, Freedmen’s Cemetery trailblazer dies at 83

Lillie Finklea, right, and Louise Massoud were selected as a Living Legends of Alexandria in 2009 for their work establishing and preserving the Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery.

Lillie Finklea, right, and Louise Massoud were selected as a Living Legends of Alexandria in 2009 for their work establishing and preserving the Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery.

For anyone who would listen, Lillie Finklea had a story to tell, the story of 1,800 once-forgotten African Americans buried in a neglected cemetery at the south end of Old Town.

Finklea had learned that the small parcel of land beneath a Shell gas station and an office building at the corner of South Washington and Church streets had been the site of the Freedmen’s Cemetery, a burial ground established by the military during the Civil War occupation of Alexandria.

“Alexandria’s story is forever changed because of Lillie Finklea and her work.”

— Historian Amy Bertsch

Concerned about the impact that construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge would have on the historic site, Finklea joined forces with fellow neighborhood resident Louise Massoud, together forming the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery in 1997 in hopes of preserving and memorializing the site as the sacred ground it had once been.

Now known as the Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, the site is listed by the National Park Service as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and in the African American Civil Rights Network.

“Alexandria’s story is forever changed because of Lillie Finklea and her work, with Louise Massoud, in saving Freedmen’s Cemetery,” said Amy Bertsch, who worked for several years at the Office of Historic Alexandria. “This was not simply a situation where the city could put up a marker and apologize for what had happened to this site. Lillie and Louise were incredibly dedicated, thoughtful and resourceful, and together they ensured that the city government and community would return it to a truly sacred place that memorializes those buried there and honors the strength and courage of those seeking freedom.”

Said Char McCargo Bah, a genealogist and original member of the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery, “Lillie and Louise restored a piece of African American history that was unknown to many, and they made the descendants of this cemetery proud for their active role in helping to keep history alive.”

A trailblazer among Alexandrians, Finklea died Dec. 27, 2022, at the age of 83.

Born Lillie Miller on Feb. 13, 1939, in Washington, D.C., she was the daughter of the late Ealie Miller and Bernice Bittle Miller.

Known by close friends as “Ms. Fink,” Finklea received her education in the Alexandria Public Schools; she attended Lyles Crouch Elementary and graduated from Parker Gray High School. Following graduation, she attended business school, passed the civil service exam, and became a clerk typist in the Federal Government.

Finklea became a proficient computer analyst and programmer, taking an early retirement following 30 years of service. Her next chapter in life included being a nanny to a young Mary Ferrill, remaining part of the family for many years.

Finklea married Earl Finklea in 1963. Though they had no children of their own, Finklea loved children and provided assistance to many parents and children through her church, particularly for the Clark family and their four children. After the death of her cousin, Jeanette, Finklea raised her cousin’s son Shelby Rose for a number of years. She also sponsored several children in the “adopt-a-child charities.”

Outside of her passion for the Freedmen’s Cemetery project, for which she and Massoud were named Living Legends of Alexandria in 2009, Finklea loved reading romance novels, traveling and collecting all things piggy - pictures, figurines, potholders, magnets. If it was something piggy, she had it somewhere in her house.

Finklea was diagnosed with dementia in 2012. She was cared for in her Franklin Street home by her sister, Bernice Golden, and received special care at Emilia’s Assisted Living Home in Alexandria for the last 8 months of her life.

“The Freedmen Cemetery was Lillie Finklea's biggest project that she got involved in,” said McCargo Bah. “She and Louise were able to get the attention of city officials and politicians in recognizing and assisting in funding. During the Archeology digs and the construction of the Memorial Cemetery, Lillie would watch every aspect of the construction. And when the Memorial Cemetery was finished, she was like a proud mother seeing her child graduate. She knew that this project was bigger than anything she had taken on. And like all mothers, she was overjoyed that her dedication paid off.” 

Finklea is survived by her sister, Bernice Miller Golden; two nieces, Kim Casey (Alexandria) and Karen Wilson (Petersburg, Va.); three nephews, Louis Golden (Alexandria), James Miller (South Boston, Va.), and Daryl Miller (Statesville, N.C.); sister-in-law, Connie Miller (South Boston, Va.); two great nieces, six great nephews and a host of other relatives and friends. Her brothers James Howard and Henry Arthur (Joe) Miller preceded her in death. She was also predeceased by her husband Earl Finklea.

Services were held on Jan. 9 at the Russell Temple CME Church followed by burial at Bethel Cemetery.

“The Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery was the beginning of discovering the rich history of the Cemetery,” McCargo Bah added. “Finding descendants of the cemetery would not have been possible if Lillie and Louise did not advocate to city officials to inform the public about the Cemetery. Those women made sure that their voices were heard.”