Artist Ed Dwight was thrilled when he learned a selection panel had chosen his sculpture for the Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery. But then, a few days later, the commission fell through.
Dwight later learned the reason he lost the commission was because his sculpture incorporated traditional African symbols that some could view as having a religious message.
"What are cemeteries about if not religion? And the idea that they would even suggest that this memorial be stripped, that these slaves would be stripped of their religion, to me is just insane," says Dwight.
But city officials say Dwight didn't follow the rules, because the request for proposals specifically prohibited the use of religious symbols. Diane Ruggiero is deputy director of Office of the Arts.
"I don't know that there's anything wrong with having religious symbolism in anything, but I think that what we are trying to be mindful of here is that public art is for the community at large," says Ruggiero. "We try not to get into any type of religious statement within that, and so we need to be mindful of that when we put out the RFP."
Dwight maintains that most of the traditional African symbols he used aren't religious.
"If somebody had given me a call and said they had some kind of problems with this, I could have enlightened them because these symbols mean long life," says Dwight. "Is that a religious symbol? The answer is no."
But nobody from the city ever called to say the symbols were a problem. And earlier this month, members of the Alexandria City Council awarded the commission to the selection panel's second choice.
This is just the latest controversy at the final resting place of dozens of former slaves, known as contraband in the 1860s.
In the 1950s, city officials approved the construction of a gas station over the graves.