History can easily be forgotten if we don’t make an effort to acknowledge and preserve it.
As 16-year-old Griffin Burchard worked at Alexandria National Cemetery alongside his fellow boy scouts of Troop 4077 in Alexandria, Virginia, he couldn’t help but think of another cemetery just down the street that seemed to have been forgotten by time. Douglass Cemetery dates back to the 1820s and over 1,900 African Americans have been laid to rest on its humble grounds.
Yet Douglass Cemetery has not been as meticulously maintained as its larger neighboring graveyard, and Griffin couldn’t help but think there must be something he and the troops could do to help.
“I noticed that, unlike all the other cemeteries in the complex, it was not being kept up,” Griffin recalled. “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.’ ”
The cemetery was named for one of the most famous orators and abolitionists of all time, Frederick Douglass. While Douglass himself is not buried in this cemetery, historians speculate that all of the 1,900 people buried there were either enslaved or the children of slaves. With the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia just a month away, Griffin decided on the spot to make cleaning up and repairing the Douglass Cemetery the mission that would earn him his Eagle Scout status.
Griffin set to work enlisting his troop and a few other Boy and Girl Scout troops in his area to help clean up the cemetery. Together they raked and cleared the land of debris, trimmed the trees, and polished the 600 grave markers. Griffin even collected scrap aluminum siding and extra copper piping he’d found around his house, cashing it in for the $200 he needed to purchase a brand new sign.
The sign includes a brief history of the cemetery and a quote from Douglass himself: “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.”
On the day that the newly-spruced cemetery and new sign were unveiled, city officials, local faith leaders, historians, and members of Griffin’s troop gathered to pay tribute to the young man’s efforts. “We’re extremely proud of him,” said Griffin’s father, Anthony Burchard. “At this point, 400 years in, this history needs to be recognized.”
After doing some research Griffin realized that this same fate often befalls black-only cemeteries across the nation. While churches and other nonprofits typically care for cemeteries, there are few resources available from city or state governement. Thanks to Griffin’s actions Alexandria officials have worked to obtain a $10,000 grant from the state of Virginia to survey the plot and finally honor the people buried there.
For Griffin, working on this project has inspired him to continue to find ways to keep history alive in the world around him. Speaking of Frederick Douglass, Griffin said, “He was a great example of a citizen who impacted his community … our nation and our world through his lifelong and tireless work. This project has made me want to be a great citizen.”
We’d say this young man is already well on his way to becoming a great citizen! This is the sort of action we need more of in the world; if we notice an injustice, no matter how seemingly small, why not take action to fix it? Remembering those who shaped our world is an important part of being an American. Well done, Griffin!
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