Arlington’s history also repeats itself.
In the mid-1960s, a fuss was made over neglect of a “negro cemetery” being moved from the corner of Columbia Pike and Washington Blvd.
In 2018, many of those same, relocated, graves have fallen into disrepair out in the Alexandria section of Fairfax.
Alarm was raised this summer by Dean DeRosa, interpretive park ranger for the National Park Service at Arlington House. He sent me news clips and legal documents describing the clash that began in 1964. He expressed concerns over the “sad condition” of the Fairfax graves with names like Gray and Syphax so intertwined with Arlington House heritage.
The African-American graves in plots at 1600 Columbia Pike since 1880 had been sold and maintained by the Stevens Lodge #1435 of the Odd Fellows of Alexandria, Arlington County, Va. Details were spelled out in 1967 Northern Virginia Sun coverage and a writeup by an Arlington Genealogy Club’s surveys of local cemeteries.
Many founders of this black lodge were formerly enslaved under George Washington Parke Custis and Robert E. Lee. They sold burial plots on two-acres near what became the Marine Post at Henderson Hall for as little as $5. It eventually contained 700 graves, though only 164 were identified.
By the late 1950s — the last burial was in 1959 — the Odd Fellows, whose headquarters had burned down, could no longer maintain the cemetery. “Abandoned graveyard suffers from abuse, neglect,” shouted the Sun headline. Reporter Deborah Sollers wrote of “flattened gray-green of yucca plants and an occasional clump of plastic flowers.” Vandals had struck, a casket was showing through overgrown brush and neighborhood children had built a treehouse there.
In 1964, KCM Corp., planning to build what today is the Sheraton Hotel, applied to acquire the land from the Odd Fellows, now eager to sell. A Circuit Court okayed the waiver from a Virginia law against using cemetery land for other purposes.
The corporation paid $149,000 to move 200-plus graves to Fairfax (some graves were moved to Suitland, Md.). Surviving descendants were compensated. Surveys also mention that some African American graves originally at Calloway United Methodist Church at 5000 Lee Highway were also moved to Coleman Cemetery.
Last week, I drove to that cemetery in a residential subdivision on 1900 Collingwood Rd., near Hollin Hall. I found many headstones tilted and half-buried, their texts marred. I scoured to find markers for the famous Grays — Selina and Thornton, Harry, Sarah, and Emma, as well as Ennis and Emma Syphax. Many headstones are unidentified.
Contacts I made with local civic associations and the nonprofit Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association showed me only that the cemetery was deeded in 1944 to the Churches and Fraternities Association of Alexandria.
I learned that the same disrepair at Coleman was documented back in 1998 in surveys by the Fairfax Genealogical Society and the Mount Vernon Genealogical Society. They noted no indicators of which graves had come over from Arlington.
There is no caretaker’s office at Coleman. A sign warns that without perpetual care, the grass will not be cut due to rising labor costs. Another sign posts a phone number for the Coleman Cemetery Association with a modern 571 prefix. I traced the number online to Arlington. But it is inoperative.
So there, the trail of responsibility for Arlington’s graves in exile, goes cold.
Ever wonder how the Kiwanis got their name?
Community activist Kim Klingler is currently driving home the answer.
The (originally) men’s service club founded in Detroit in 1915 took the moniker from the Otchipew Indian expression “Nunc Kee-Wanis.” Which means “We trade,” “We share our talents,” “We make a noise,” or “We meet.”
Klingler won this year’s South Arlington Kiwanis fundraiser auction.
That allows her to tote “Nunc,” a two-foot ceramic statue of a brave Indian rescued from a rummage sale to events. All for the cause.