“The first thing we did was collect all the names we could find from the D.C. archives’ burial records,” Belcher says. “We would go there every day and just pore through the records.”
In the end, the team tallied 8,428 burials, with fewer than 300 of them recorded as being disinterred and reburied elsewhere. Hundreds — possibly as many as 1,900 — of the bodies actually came from an older African American cemetery that had been at 12th and V streets NW.
There were biographical details, too: names, ages, birthplaces and occupations. About 60 percent of the bodies buried at Mount Pleasant Plains were of children under the age of 5. Most of the adults buried there had moved to Washington immediately after the Civil War. Most had been born in slavery. “Being buried in a cemetery of their choosing would have been part of their newfound freedom,” Belcher says.
The team also traced the family records of the deceased and found that they have about 1 million living descendants. One of those is Dawne Young, a marketing consultant in Montgomery County and a docent at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She went to a remembrance event in the park last year in which attendees read aloud the names of the buried.
Although she knew her great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Edmonson, was buried there, she had no idea that many other names would be familiar. “When we were rattling off names, I was surprised to hear so many of my relatives,” Young says. “I didn’t know how many were there.” In all, 23 members of the Edmonson family were buried in the cemetery.
The District stopped issuing burial permits for Mount Pleasant Plains Cemetery in 1890, claiming the ground was at capacity. The once bustling cemetery became dormant and unkempt. The land changed hands several times over the next few decades.
Development takes a toll
In 1939, developers who hoped to build apartment buildings hired an undertaker to disinter and rebury the bodies in another cemetery. He located 129 remains and 13 headstones, and the cemetery was deemed clear of human remains.
But efforts to level the ground in 1959 turned up numerous graves and bones, and the city halted construction. Eventually, the developers abandoned the land. The District acquired it in 1982 and named it Community Park West, which later became Walter Pierce Park. The land that made up the cemetery today falls under three different jurisdictions. The majority is in Walter Pierce Park. A thin strip of the northern boundary belongs to the National Zoo, and the western slope abutting Rock Creek Park is National Park Service land.