By Haley Crum
Alexandria got a big dose of history Saturday as the Fort Ward History Work Group met and heard the preliminary results on archaeological research conducted within the park.
Tom Bodor, principal investigator for the Fort Ward Historical and Archaeological Study, said he and his group had made several significant finds, including the discovery of a number of unmarked graves.The City of Alexandria hired the group last year to study the Park before moving forward with renovation plans.
“We used [Ground Penetrating Radar] to identify unknown burials,” Bodor said. “We didn’t dig into the graves, just dug down into the grave shafts.”
The unmarked graves and subsurface structures probably belonged to the people who lived in Fort Ward from 1865-1960, the post-Civil War era. While discovering the whereabouts of the graves was significant, it was not surprising, said J. Glenn Eugster, community activist and interim staff member of the committee.
“You have a cemetery in the park, but you also have all kinds of other graves in the park, some of which are marked, but most of which were not,” Eugster said. “It goes back to the time before the city bought the land and it was used by African American and white communities. At that time it was not uncommon to have family graves and bury their loved ones in their yard. It was a way of keeping families together.”
GPR, the technique Bodor and his team used to find the graves, is a geophysical technique that collects and records information about the subsurface. The technique was also used to locate lost community structures that were known to exist on the property, such as homes, a school house, a church, and associated features of those structures such as outhouses.
“But what else is significant is what it’s showing is that these resources do exist and undoubtedly there will be other areas of the fort that will contain these resources, whether it will be the post-civil war community, or if they’re actually associated with the civil war itself,” Bodor said.
The research group was contracted by the City of Alexandria to begin their research in September 2010. Actual fieldwork began in November 2010 and concluded last week. The full study has not been released.
Julia Randle, archivist at Virginia Theological Seminary’s Bishop Payne Library, where the meeting was held, said that the findings should have a huge impact on Alexandria citizens, particularly the black community.
“Alexandria, historically, has focused on it being the colonial port and the home of George Washington and this place that was occupied throughout the Civil War,” Randle said. “But throughout it’s whole history, it wasn’t just white guys doing things. It wasn’t just a white community. It had a large African American community and history that went to put together everything that is Alexandria.”
While the consultants began their work late last year, The Fort Ward History Work Group was established about two years ago by the City when it needed help with research on the history and culture of the Fort Ward. “I think the city saw that a number of us outside city government were already doing research,” Eugster said.
But according to Eugster, what really jump started the research was in 2008 when the city proposed to do a development plan for the park, which included building picnic pavilions on the property. “They pushed that plan through under the cover of darkness with no public input and no consideration of history at all,” he said. “They were purposing to build things on top of where people are buried.”
As a response to community backlash, the committee was created. Because the City still has not said if it plans to continue with the development plan, the committee’s research is that much more important, according to Eugster .
“These are people’s mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends,” he said. “The challenge for the city and everyone who lives in the city is, ‘How do we get the services we need without destroying quality of life, history and culture?’”
The meetings are open to anyone, and many of the people who attended Saturday’s meeting were doing their own research. A number of attendees, like Randle, were interested in the history of the black community in Alexandria.
“We are a community not just of white Southerners, we are a community of people, who are black and white and everything in between,” Randle said. “The significance to the community of Alexandria is the inclusion of the whole community and telling the whole story.”
Bodor said that, ultimately, the findings of the research group create a connection for the Alexandria community to it’s own past. “The descendants of these families now have a tangible connection to their past that you can’t get through just reading,” he said. “The most important part of archeology is that it’s a tool for uncovering these parts of the past.