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Freedman's Cemetery Memorial In Alexandria Rejected Over 'Religious Symbols'

The prototype for Ed Dwight's sculpture, which was chosen by the selection committee and later rejected because it has traditional African symbols that could be considered to have religious significance.
Michael Pope
The prototype for Ed Dwight's sculpture, which was chosen by the selection committee and later rejected because it has traditional African symbols that could be considered to have religious significance.

Leaders in Alexandria, Va. have rejected a sculpture because for a Freedman's Cemetery memorial because it contains religious symbols.

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?" says Dwight. "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."

City officials say Dwight didn't follow the rules, because the request for proposals specifically prohibited the use of religious symbols.

"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 Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of Office of the Arts. "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, like, 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 1950's, city officials approved the construction of a gas station over the graves.

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Michael Pope is a reporter with the Connection Newspapers who provides special coverage of Northern Virginia for WAMU 88.5. His story for the Connection can be found at AlexandriaGazette.com.

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