While on a service trip with his Boy Scout troop, Griffin Burchard was taken aback by seeing one of his state’s renowned cemeteries, named after a famous African American leader, in complete disarray. Though he was working on a completely different project that day, his eyes kept focusing on the dilapidated cemetery right down the street. Years later, the cemetery looks completely different, thanks to Griffin and his fellow scouts.
A Disheveled Landmark
About three years ago, Griffin and his troop were removing old wreaths from graves inside the Alexandria National Cemetery in Virginia. However, he saw that there was another cemetery nearby that didn’t look like it was maintained at all. The cemetery was named after famed African-American orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “I noticed that, unlike all the other cemeteries in the complex, it was not being kept up,” the teen shared in an interview. “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.’” After doing a little digging into the cemetery, Griffin discovered that at least 1,900 people, all African American, were buried there between the 1890s and 1975. City of Alexandria archaeologist Benjamin Skolnik shared that some were likely enslaved, and many were almost certainly descendants of slaves. Griffin also found that it looked unkempt because no church in Alexandria or other nonprofit organization works to maintain it. Outside of a small monetary allocation for mowing, the city didn’t put too much towards maintaining the site. Griffin couldn’t bear to see that continue so he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Getting To Work
Instead of just walking away, Griffin wanted to restore this cemetery to its original state. However, it would take a lot of work. First, the teen contacted the city of Alexandria for an official permit for the cleanup. Officials were happy to assist him with the proper paperwork as well as with research about the cemetery. While he dug into historic documents and articles about the site, he also worked with several members of his Boy Scout troop to clean up the cemetery’s land. A few Girl Scouts also helped them with the enormous task. Griffin’s parents helped out as well, assisting with trimming trees around the land. The teen also saved up $200 for a new sign for the cemetery by recycling extra copper and aluminum siding taken from his house.
Honoring The Past
The months-long project not only earned Griffin the status of Eagle Scout in his troop but was honored with a formal ceremony by the city. City officials, religious leaders, historians and a dozen members of Griffin’s Boy Scout Troop 4077 gathered to celebrate the restoration of the cemetery. The moment also coincided with the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia. During the ceremony, Griffin paid tribute to those buried in the cemetery as well as Frederick Douglass himself. “He was a great example of a citizen who impacted his community, our nation and our world through his lifelong and tireless work,” the teen shared in his speech. “This project has made me want to be a great citizen.” Griffin’s dedication to the site has brought a renewed sense of obligation from city officials to maintain the cemetery better. A few weeks prior to the ceremony, the state of Virginia gave the city a grant for almost $10,000 to survey the land to determine how many people are buried there. Once that’s known, city officials will be able to provide markers for the unnamed dead. There are also plans to install a better drainage system to help prevent flooding. For Griffin, the entire experience made him much more appreciative of the history around him. “I’ve learned it’s important to know who we are and where we came from,” he said.
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