Griffin Burchard never forgot the dilapidated Virginia cemetery named after one of the most famous African Americans of the 19th century.
Burchard first spotted Douglass Memorial Cemetery — named for orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass — while on a service trip with his Boy Scout troop about three years ago. The scouts were supposed to be removing faded wreaths from pristine rows of graves inside the well-maintained Alexandria National Cemetery.
But Burchard’s eyes were drawn to the rundown plot just down the street.
“I noticed that, unlike all the other cemeteries in the complex, it was not being kept up,” said Burchard, 16. “There were fallen leaves, signs of flooding and trees with limbs hanging so far over you couldn’t even read the sign that says, ‘Douglass.’ ”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Burchard stood in that same cemetery, now swept clean of debris, and smiled as he watched a fellow Boy Scout whip away a black cloth to reveal a brand-new sign for the plot. It was the culmination of a monthslong restoration project Burchard undertook to earn Eagle Scout status — and it was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia.
Douglass Cemetery contains about 600 headstones, though city records show at least 1,900 people, all African-American, were buried there between the 1890s and 1975, said City of Alexandria archaeologist Benjamin Skolnik. Some were likely enslaved, and many are almost certainly descendants of enslaved people, according to Skolnik.
In addition to detailing a brief history of the cemetery, Burchard’s marker quotes Douglass: “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.”
City officials, local faith leaders, historians and a dozen members of Boy Scout Troop 4077 all admired the quote, printed in yellow script on a brown background, as they crowded into the plot to listen to speeches from Burchard and a local priest.
Donald Fest, the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church, called Burchard’s work “an act of graciousness and honor.” Burchard said he hopes the restoration commemorates those buried in Douglass Cemetery — and the plot’s namesake.
“He was a great example of a citizen who impacted his community… our nation and our world through his lifelong and tireless work,” Burchard said. “This project has made me want to be a great citizen.”
He’d completed the physical restoration that morning, working with several members of his Boy Scout troop — as well as a few Girl Scouts — to rake and clear the land. His parents also chipped in earlier in the week, helping him trim the trees that frame the cemetery.
Burchard paid for the sign, which cost around $200, by recycling extra copper and aluminum siding taken from his house.
“We’re extremely proud of him,” said Griffin’s father, Anthony Burchard, 55. “At this point, 400 years in, this history needs to be recognized.”
Burchard felt that way, too. As he worked to burnish the cemetery’s present, he dove into its past.
He contacted the City of Alexandria, whose officials helped him obtain a permit for the clean up and guided his research. He also headed to the Barrett Library in Old Town Alexandria, where he learned the cemetery once served as a popular picnicking spot. Local legend says George Washington dined there, Burchard said.
In 1895, a group of African-American residents — including a few reverends — converted the park to a burial site and named it for Frederick Douglass, though there is no evidence Douglass knew about or visited the cemetery, according to Burchard.
The plot’s all-black status and dedication to Douglass were typical of the time, said University of Virginia professor Caroline Janney. Cemeteries in America were almost always segregated then — and Douglass’s death in February 1895 inspired people across the country to name places in his honor, she said.
As he conducted his research, Burchard drew on the work of Virginia historian Wesley E. Pippenger, who has cataloged the names of some buried at Douglass Memorial. Burchard also looked up old newspaper clippings, where he found short items like this one: “FAINTED AT THE GRAVE,” begins the paragraph-long article in the March 16, 1896, edition of the Alexandria Gazette.
“Yesterday afternoon while the body of Wm. Keith, colored, was being interred in Douglass cemetery, the mother of the deceased fainted,” it reads. “Considerable excitement followed and some time elapsed before the grief-stricken woman was restored to consciousness.”
It’s this fading history that makes Burchard’s restoration efforts so vital, historians said.
Black cemeteries across the country are facing the same fate Douglass Cemetery did, said Jacqueline Copeland, the executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture. Many state governments do not allocate money to maintain and repair black grave sites, she said, meaning the sites fade into obsolescence.
Because of that, America stands in danger of “losing our history,” Copeland said.
Burchard said Douglass Cemetery fell into disrepair over the years because no Alexandria church or nonprofit cares for it; often, cemeteries are maintained by congregations. He hopes the restoration, and the ceremony, will raise the cemetery’s profile and inspire a more permanent caretaker to step forward.
Skolnik said the city allocates some money for the cemetery’s upkeep — mostly for mowing — but admitted the site needs more. Spurred by Burchard’s restoration efforts, city officials a few weeks ago obtained a roughly $10,000 grant from the state of Virginia to survey the plot and determine how many people are buried there.
Once that’s known, city officials can honor the unnamed dead with markers, Skolnik said. And they can dig around graves to install a better drainage system, which will reduce flooding, currently a perennial problem.
“We were aware of some of the issues with the cemetery already,” Skolnik said. “But having Griffin available and willing to do this project is what enabled us to get going and produce something.”
Burchard was a top student in history before he began restoring the cemetery. But he never really loved the subject — never understood why someone might spend hours combing through old documents, or devote their career to digging up someone else’s dusty secrets.
Now, he plans to take A.P. United States history next year in high school. He is considering minoring in history when he gets to college (though he’s sticking to long-held plans to major in engineering).
“I’ve learned it’s important, to know who we are,” Burchard said, “and where we came from.”