Learn Local, Think National: Connecting Alexandria National Cemetery to American History

“They didn’t even spell out her name!”  This outraged exclamation from an 11th grader at T.C. Williams High School made me absurdly happy.  Why?  Because against all odds I had somehow managed to interest a high schooler in the story of women buried Alexandria National Cemetery (ANC).  And the student was outraged!  I couldn’t be more thrilled.

In Spring 2018 when we received a contract from the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) to work on a website for the Veterans Legacy Program, I wasn’t sure how we would make it interesting for students.  Even as a senior history major, I was skeptical as to how interesting a national cemetery could be.  Personally, I didn’t know much about the ANC and I had no experience writing lesson plans.  Where should we start?

At a site visit to Alexandria National Cemetery, Mr. James Saunders, Cemetery Superintendent, recounted the history and significance of ANC.  Source: RRCHNM.

As a research team, we knew the cemetery offered a rich history to work with but were not sure where to begin to tell its stories.  Established in 1862 as one of the first fourteen national cemeteries, ANC is the final resting place for veterans who fought for their country throughout its history.  That’s a lot of choice and we started, more or less, tracking down stories that sounded interesting and followed where they took.  There were interesting stories we found that we just couldn’t choose because they did not necessarily connect to curriculum standards or there wasn’t enough information.  Sometimes serendipity is a researcher’s best friend and that was how I stumbled upon an article about Alexandria’s L’Ouverture Hospital and its segregated wards for black and white soldiers.

The story I found unraveled to involve United States Colored Troops, the Quartermaster Department who oversaw all national cemeteries, and a fight against institutionalized racism in the United States.  Trips to the cemetery and the National Archives Administration (NARA) pieced together the story that linked ANC to a Freedmen and Contraband Cemetery, a former slave grave site.  Research unearthed collections that provided first-hand accounts of the cemetery and life around it. For example, the Julia Ann Wilbur diary courtesy of Haverford College, provided insights on racial inequalities during the Civil War, while the private collection of Charles Joyce preserved the image of a USCT Honor Guard in Alexandria, VA.  With the launch of For Us the Living, the L’Ouverture Patients’ Petition for burial in the national cemetery will be digitally published in its entirety for the first time.  Bringing our research together into cohesive narratives was satisfying but only half of the project.

Pilot-testing with students and educators at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, VA ensured the lesson modules worked for high school audiences.  Writing for a high school audience has challenges, but this encouraged all of us to find the clearest way to tell our stories and ask questions that guided learners through the historical research process.

Testing the site in an actual classroom was terrifying but ultimately as helpful and important as every other step in our process. Working with four classes of 11th and 12th grades allowed us to observe how they understood the content and interacted with the site.  Their feedback brought issues to our attention– questions that were too difficult or words that needed defining– as the students worked through the modules.  They also gave us great encouragement with comments like “The creators did a good job and I hope they make things like this for other historical locations in the Alexandria area.”   The pilot testing teachers, Sarah Whelan, Patrick Deville, and Philip Engle, also provided us with insights on how to improve the site as a teaching tool and make it more appealing to teachers.  Our final Teach page was a direct response to their feedback on how to integrate the site into national standards.  The contribution of ACPS strengthened For Us the Living as a tool for teachers and students across the country.

As a recent graduate and relative newbie to digital humanities and history education, this project has been a roller-coaster learning experience as well as a reaffirmation of why I love history.  For Us the Living is the first project I have contributed to from start to finish.  I worked with experienced professionals from different fields– from the National Cemetery Administration to local public school educators– and learned about the importance of different perspectives and interpretations when creating lessons for students.  It was fun to piece together our stories and figure how each fit into the nation’s larger narrative.  That I was able to be part of a team with the larger purpose of supporting the NCA’s Veterans Legacy Program and encouraging students to get involved in local and national history makes it all the more meaningful to me.