Watch CBS News

Once below gas station, Virginia cemetery restored

An Alexandria, Virginia cemetery that served as a burial place for hundreds of former slaves during the Civil War became a gas station in the 1950s
Forgotten cemetery for freed slaves rediscovered 02:29

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Imagine coming to a cemetery kept secret for a century, and finding ancestors you never knew existed.

"I am so proud," said Zuny Matema. Proud because of who they were.

The dedication of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery in Alexandria happened almost by accident.

Most of the people buried in the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery in Alexandria, their names now etched in bronze, were former slaves and children who escaped to freedom during the Civil War.

Matema's relatives descended from Martha Washington's maid.

"To actually see your ancestors name is, oh my god," she said.

The dedication of the cemetery happened almost by accident. Alexandria was a gathering place for escaped slaves during the Civil War. But after the war, with no headstones on the graves, the city found a way to forget. In the 1950s, a gas station was allowed to pave it over.

Yvette Lewis and her father Donald Taylor had purchased gasoline from the station without knowing their ancestors lay below.

But eventually the cemetery was rediscovered, and the city tore the gas station down. Archaeologists found more than 600 graves, and a genealogist Char Bah found more than 200 living relatives.

"First they were shocked, and then they said 'you mean to tell me that gas station?!'" said Bah. "I said 'yes' and then I would hear crying."

Yvette Lewis and her father Donald Taylor had lived five blocks away. They even bought gasoline at the station, without knowing their ancestors lay below.

One by one they found six of those relatives on the wall.

"Daddy, it's okay," said Lewis, comforting Taylor as he wept.

"We're sad, but it's tears of joy," he said. "Joy that I know where they are...

"...and they were free," added Lewis. "Yes, free."

Most of the families have forgiven the city for the long held secret, because now their forgotten ancestors have been freed a second time.

They were once lost, but now are found.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.