By Ashley Claire Simpson
These days, it can be simple to discover more information about distant relatives. With Internet access, a computer, and a few keystrokes, you can accurately add a branch to your family tree. However, it’s not easy when any of your family tree’s branches are made up of relatives who had been American slaves. When websites don’t get the job done, you turn to a professional genealogist like Char McCargo Bah, the Alexandria native who identified the descendants of 171 of the Civil War-era freed slaves who had been buried in Alexandria’s Freedmen Cemetery during the 1860s.
“Today people think that if evidence or any piece of information is not in a database, then it doesn’t exist,” said McCargo-Bah, who spent from 2008 to 2014 searching for Freedmen family members. “But, that’s not true. Knowing how and where to look for data, I was able to find the descendants of 171 freedman and contrabands that the city of Alexandria had lost track. Some things I did: I went to the National Archives and the State of Virginia Archives where I was able to identify a lot of the southern slave owner names that appeared among former slaves in Alexandria. I researched the school board, the city directory, and consulted with people who my family knew in Alexandria. Then once I talked to a few family members of the former slaves buried in Freedmen Cemetery, it went viral and most everyone who thought their family was involved in the cemetery wanted to get in touch with me.”
Don’t let the “free” in Freedmen cemetery confuse you, either. Distinct from the rest of Virginia, Alexandria was Union territory during the Civil War. During this time, thousands of former slaves fled to Alexandria to seek both freedom and employment opportunities. And with the rampant disease that inevitably comes with a swelling population in a war torn region, Alexandria established Freedmen Cemetery for the specific purpose of laying to rest roughly 1,800 former slaves, many of whom known as contrabands.
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