The Path of Thorns and Roses (Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, Alexandria, VA)


Dublin Core


The Path of Thorns and Roses (Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, Alexandria, VA)


Subject (Topic)
African Americans--Virginia
Alexandria (Va.)--History
American South
Fugitive slaves--United States
Public art
Public sculpture

Subject (Object Type)
Commemorative sculpture


The Path of Thorns and Roses is an 18-foot high sculpture that spirals upwards and includes six allegorial figures: Oppression (a semi-nude male figure), Struggle (a semi-nude male figure at the base of the sculpture), Sacrifice (a woman who grasps the limp body of a child), Loss (a woman enfolded onto herself), and Compassion (a woman holding a baby and reaching towards Loss). Hope, a man with a bald head, stands on his toes within a large circle of thorns. The figure of Hope holds an unbloomed rose in his outstretched hands. Alongside the statue is a four-walled structure, “The Place of Remembrance,” the includes the names of individuals interred at the site as well as historical information on African Americans in Alexandria during the Civil War. Limestone blocks mark individual graves.


Chiodo, Mario, 1961-


Photographs by Renée Ater


Dedication: September 6, 2014


C. J. Howard, RA (original design); Joanna Blake (sculptor, bas-reliefs); AECOM (formerly EDAW); Howard + Revis Design; City of Alexandria; Friends of Freedmen's Cemetery; and Alexandria Commission for the Arts.


City of Alexandria, Alexandria City Hall, 301 King Street, Alexandria, Virginia, 22314, United States






Visual Arts-Sculpture


1001 S. Washington Street, Alexandria, Virginia, 22314, United States

Alternative Title

Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial

Date Created

Design Competition: 2008

Has Part

Bronze plaque on base of sculpture:
The Path of Thorns and Roses. Created and sculpted by Mario Chido, 2013. Public art owned by the City of Alexandria, Virginia. Cast by Mussi Artworks Foundry, California.

Engraving on base of sculpture:
“I am thankful there is a beginning. I am full of hope for tomorrow. A Power mightier than man is guiding this revolution; and though justice moves slowly, it will come at last. The American people will outlive this mean prejudice against complexion.” —Harriet Jacobs, freedwoman, author, educator and dedicated aid worker in Alexandria during the Civil War

Inset brick with bronze lettering on plaza:
1955 Gas Station. Under this plaza is the concrete floor of a gas station, the construction of which desecrated many graves. The flooring was kept in place to protect the graves that remain below.

Text from Wall One of "The Place of Remembrance":
Welcome to Contrabands and Freemen Cemetery Memorial

During the Civil War, Alexandria’s population swelled with more than 20,000 enslaved African Americans fleeing Confederate territory for safety behind Union lines. Initially called Contrabands because they were considered “property” taken during wartime, they would later be called Freedmen. The new arrivals joined Alexandria’s free and enslaved African Americans, hoping to find jobs, homes, educational opportunities, and lost family. They also found deplorable living conditions and a raging smallpox epidemic. Many people died just as freedom came within reach.

The federal government established a cemetery for the dead here in 1864. A formal record documents the burials for 1,711 individuals through January 1869 when the government abandoned the cemetery. The community of Freedmen was left the task of maintenance, and may have continued using the burial ground well after it closed. Over time, its wooden grave markers deteriorated, and the cemetery suffered many desecrations. An adjacent brick manufactory excavated clay, exposing bones and coffins. The paving of Washington Street covered and disturbed graves and the development of a gas station, the Beltway, and an office building destroyed hundreds more.

Locations of many of the surviving graves remain unidentified but more than 540 have been found by archaeologists and given markers. Though individuals can no longer be linked to burial plots, the names of those buried in this cemetery survive. They are inscribed here, along with ages, dates, and places of death, and notes left by the record-keeper. Today, visitors to the cemetery memorial join descendants of the Contrabands and Freedman in honoring the memorial of these freedom seekers.

Individuals for whom living descendants have been identified are noted with this marker.

[The following text appears above the bronze plaques with the names of those buried at the site.]

In Alexandria’s first known civil rights protest,… members of the United States Colored Troops signed a petition requesting that black soldiers be buried alongside their white comrades in arms at the nearby military cemetery. Some Authors fought their request and, in one instance, the caisson of a USCT soldier en route to the military cemetery was forcibly re-routed to his cemetery. Still, the soldiers won their battle, and in January 1865, caskets of over a hundred USCT soldiers were disinterred from this burial ground and moved to Alexandria’s National Cemetery where they are recognized by stone markers today. Their names are listed below.

Text from Wall Two of "The Place of Remembrance":
[The following text appears below an 1865 grid street plan of Alexandria]

The City

The Freedom seekers who arrived in Alexandria joined a large existing community of African Americans, including many free and enslaved individuals. These residents, new and old, helped to shape the city, establishing neighborhoods, and founding churches and schools. They also went to work on the railroads, at the wharves, in factories and small businesses, at hospitals and army encampments, and in their homes.

Freedmen’s Cemetery
This burial ground for African Americans was established by the federal government on the outskirts of town, on land owned by Francis Smith, Robert E. Lee’s attorney.

Soldiers Cemetery
Injured soldiers of the US Colored Troops convalescing at L’Ouverture Hospital successfully petitioned for the right to a burial alongside their white comrades at this military cemetery.

Slave Jail and L’Ouverture Hospital
The Price Birch and Co. slave jail at 1315 Duke Street was once the last stop for thousands of slaves sold south to a life of extreme hardship. The Union army commandeered the property as a jail. In 1804, a hospital was built nearby that treated African American soldiers and civilians for diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid, Shiloh Baptist Church congregation formed here.

Contraband Barracks and School
Some Freedmen found housing in crowded barracks like those on Prince Street. Despite the difficult conditions. Freedmen attended a school established at the barracks.

African American Schools
Deprived of an education by slavery, Contraband and Freedmen seized the opportunity to learn. Adults and children alike filled Contraband schools across the city learning for the first time to read and write.

African American Neighborhoods
While some of those arriving in Alexandria settled into established free black neighborhoods such as Hayti and the Bottoms, most camped out in deserted buildings or on marginal land, often constructing their own huts and shacks. These crowded settlements eventually became new African American neighborhoods such as Cross-Canal, Petersburg, and Grantville.

African American Churches
Places of gathering, faith, aid, and activism, Alexandria’s black churches were critical to the Contraband and Freedmen community. Many of Alexandria’s present-day congregations began meeting during the war.

Alexandria’s strategic location where railroads met waterways made it a center of supply for the Union army. Rails also transported soldiers to the front and brought back the wounded to Alexandria’s hospital. Many Freedmen became railroad workers helping to keep goods and personnel moving.

Many Contrabands and Freemen worked on the waterfront, processing, loading, and unloading goods coming in on ships and by rail. These laborers kept a steady stream of food and supplies flowing to the Union army.

[The following text appears below a bas-relief of enslaved people escaping bondage]

Fleeing slavery for sanctuary and freedom in Alexandria

When Virginia seceded in May of 1861, Union troops occupied Alexandria and turned the port town into a staging area and base for operation. It also became a beacon for freedom seekers who took the opportunity war provided to escape enslavement. Thousands of fleeing African Americans made the dangerous and difficult journey through Confederate territory, often traveling on foot, some coming from hundreds of miles away. They arrived in Alexandria hungry, tired, and with few resources, and began searching our food, clothing shelter, medical treatment, and education.

[The following quote appears to the right of the bas-relief.]

“I traveled 65 miles and we had 52 on our number before, we crost, the river…we tought, we wold, be taken eny moment, the babys cried, and we could whear, the sound of them. On the warter. We lay all night in the woods, and next day we traveled on and we reached, Suffolk that night and we lost twenty one of the Number.” —Emma Bynum, a freedwoman describing her flights to freedmen in a composition for her schoolteacher, Miss Lucy Chase

Text from Wall Three of "The Place of Remembrance":
[The following text appears below a bas-relief of a school teacher surrounded by her students.]

Learning to read at an Alexandria freedmen’s school

Overwhelmed by their numbers, Alexandria could offer little aid to the newly arrived Contrabands. Some took up residence in temporary barracks created near the site of a former slave jail. Others found shelter in free black neighborhoods or in abandoned buildings and shanties. Social workers like Julia Wilbur, a white Quaker from New York, and Harriet Jacobs, a black freedwoman, responded to the need by gathering supplies, attending to medical problems, and setting up school and other community services. Despite their efforts, many particularly children, died from exposure or disease. Still, the freed people worked tirelessly to create new lives, and in the process, reshaped the city of Alexandria.”

[The following quote appears to the right of the bas-relief.]

“Besides the school in the barracks there are our others in the city, which are self-sustaining, one containing one hundred and fifty pupils, It is an astonishing fact, which ought to be placed upon record…that out of the two thousand people collected at Alexandria there are four hundred children sent daily to school. The first demand of these fugitives when they come into this place is that their children may go to school.” —Harriet Jacobs, freedwoman, educator, and aid worker in Alexandria, April 29, 1863

[The following text appears below an aerial map of the cemetery]

The Site:
The cemetery was established in 1864 and officially closed in 1869. Burials probably continued after this time, even as the wooden grave markers from the Civil War era deteriorated. Over the next century, this site endured many intrusions, and no longer appeared to be a sacred place. This site map identified features uncovered by historical and archaeological research, as well as desecrations, that occurred through the 1990s.”

1) Memorial Fence: Today, a steel fence evokes the wooden picket fence that once encircled the cemetery. The historic boundary is unknown, but likely included additional land that was paved over during the construction of South Washington Street.

2) Carriage Path: Carts carrying the dead entered the cemetery along this route.

3) Grave Shafts: Archaeology has identified more than 540 of the 1,711 burials believed to be present on site. Although no graves or artifacts were disturbed, the study revealed evidence of prior destruction caused by development of the site.

4) American Indian Site: Thousands of stone artifacts were discovered during archaeological investigations, including a 13,000 year old Clovis spear point. These finds suggest that American Indians periodically visited this bluff overlooking Hunting Creek for millennia to manufacture tools for hunting, scraping, hides, and other activities.

5) United States Colored Troops Section: As a result of a successful protest by USCT to be buried with full honors alongside their white comrades, the caskets of USCT were moved from a section of the cemetery to the nearby military cemetery in 1805.

6) Brickyard: Clay excavations may have occurred on the western edge of the cemetery, resulting in the desecration of graves, as noted by an 1892 Washington Post article: Of late the owners have been allowing the neighboring brickyard to dig clay from the outer edges of the graveyard with which to make brick. This digging has resulted in the unearthing of many coffins and skeletons, leaving the outer graves in very bad condition.

7) Gas Station: The current memorial plaza is built atop the floor and foundations of a service station built in 1955.

8) Office Building: The slab of a 1960 office building was covered during the memorial’s construction to protect the graves presumed to be below. A reconstruction portion of the building can still be seen on Church Street. Two stone Markers located the southernmost corners of the building.

Text from Wall Four of “The Place of Remembrance”:
“I have just witnessed a novel and solemn scene, a funeral in the open air. The deceased, Peter Washington, was an old man, and a slave until the breaking out of the war… After the signing and a prayer, a minister, an early associate of the deceased gave a brief sketch of the life of Peter Washington. He had eight children; in one day he was bereft of his six daughters and five grandchildren. ‘On that day’ said the minister, ‘he leant on me, and with a bursting heart exclaimed, “If it were not my hope in Christ, I could not bear up under this trial.”’ [M]any of his hearers seemed to find an echo to a like experience in their own souls, They swayed their forms, and moaned as if some wound of the past was being dressily probed. No child of his came to bid him a last farewell, they are scattered I know not where: his two sons are in the army battling for the country their father loved inspite of her persecutions to him and his.” —Harriet Jacobs, freedwoman, educator, and aid worker in Alexandria, describing the funeral of Peter Washington, buried here May 32, 1864

Text from grave marker:
Many of the African Americans who fled to Alexandria to escape enslavement and those already living here succumbed to disease and deprivation during and shortly after the Civil War. Carts bearing the dead entered the cemetery along a path in this location. Stones mark the locations of more than 540 graves identified by archaeologists and now protected by the memorial. According to historic records, the cemetery once held nearly 1,200 additional graves, many of which were destroyed by buildings and roads. Of the people laid to rest here, over half were children under the age of sixteen.


216 in. (548.64 cm.)


Bronze; Granite; Red sandstone

Bibliographic Citation

“Contrabands & Freedmen Cemetery Memorial.” City of Alexandria Virginia. February 2, 2018. Accessed March 21, 2018.

“Forgotten Cemetery for Freed Slaves Rediscovered.” CBS Evening News. September 10, 2014. Accessed March 21, 2018.

Rights Holder

Renée Ater

Still Image Item Type Metadata

Original Format


Physical Dimensions

216 in. (548.64 cm.)


Chiodo, Mario, 1961-, “The Path of Thorns and Roses (Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, Alexandria, VA),” Contemporary Monuments to the Slave Past, accessed June 22, 2024,