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Groups Dismayed over Fort Ward Plan

Margaret Summers | 3/5/2014, 3 p.m.
Renewed efforts to restore Alexandria, Va.'s historic Fort Ward Park advanced during a Feb. 24 public meeting in St. Stephen's ...
Adrienne Washington of the Fort Ward/Seminary African American Descendants Society represents one of the organizations asserting that park management planners did not thoroughly address concerns of African-American Fort Ward residents' descendants in the draft plan to restore the park. Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah

Renewed efforts to restore Alexandria, Va.’s historic Fort Ward Park advanced during a Feb. 24 public meeting in St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School at 4401 West Braddock Road. The latest draft park management plan was unveiled there. But not all of the approximately 30 people in attendance approved the draft, particularly many African-Americans with longtime ancestral links to the park.

The Fort Ward Park and Museum at 4301 West Braddock Road is the site of a Civil War Union Army fort. An African-American community was established in the park around the fort in the 1860s. The community existed until the 1960s, when the city government bought out several of the remaining descendants so that the area could be converted into a historic Civil War landmark and a public park. Many descendants claim that their families were forced out of the park to accommodate the city’s plans.

“The biggest challenge to restoration is that everyone here loves the park for different reasons,” Elisabeth Lardner of the Alexandria-based Lardner/ Klein Landscape Architects P.C., told the group. Lardner’s company developed the latest draft park management plan.

“We have to agree on common goals,” Lardner said. “Otherwise, it will be difficult to get additional funding to develop the park.”

Disagreeing on how well Alexandria has “loved” the park, especially where descendants of its African-American residents are concerned, was Adrienne Washington, president of the Fort Ward and Seminary African American Descendants Society. “It’s hard to believe anything we’re being told" about how the history of African-American residents will be portrayed or referred to in the restored park, she said. “[Park management planners] tell us one thing then they come back with something different. And they keep [relegating] our ancestors’ [historic] presence to a small corner of the park.”

“There is a history of mistrust between the Fort Ward descendants’ community and the city,” said Glenn Eugster, a white Alexandria resident who is a member of the Descendants Society steering committee. Eugster said much of it focused on the city’s placing a maintenance yard and nursery in the park on top of graves of African-Americans who had lived in the park. “There is evidence the city knew there were burial grounds in Fort Ward Park as early as the 1950s,” he said.

Lardner claimed the location of burial grounds is no longer an issue due to archaeological investigations. “Now we know where we can dig [to plant trees],” she said.

“They really don’t know where all the graves are,” said Washington after the meeting. “They know about the ones they have already found, but there are more. We still don’t have resolution over not putting picnic tables over our ancestors’ graves. Our ancestors are just as important as trees, dog parks and playgrounds.”

Another matter of mistrust grew out of a document about the park that had no input from the descendants. The city’s Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA), which oversees several historic sites, hired a historian to prepare the draft in the fall of 2013 to complement the restoration. Descendants, who thought they would be interviewed, were surprised by its November release.