Belcher eventually succeeded in getting gardening banned. “They know there’s a cemetery, they just don’t [care],” she says.
Park officials also sanctioned the use of a strip of the park’s western edge as a dog run, which infuriated Belcher. “I just really don’t like the idea of dogs pissing on people’s graves,” she says.
In 2010, the National Park Service began a soil erosion mitigation project on the park’s west slope. Belcher and Mack objected, arguing that the exposed coffin and human remains they’d discovered there could be damaged.
Simone Monteleone, a historian with the Park Service who oversees Rock Creek Park, says the work was as noninvasive as possible. Workers didn’t terrace the land, they didn’t dig, and they respectfully covered any remains they found, she says. “We made every effort to protect the remains.”
Belcher, however, says workers carelessly tossed boulders down the slope to fill gullies, rolling over exposed remains in the process. Stakes were driven into the ground, she says, and contractors’ cars and trucks parked on the site. Belcher complained to the city and convinced officials to temporarily halt the work. The project was finally completed after the Park Service agreed to let Mack and two other archaeologists monitor the remaining labor.
On May 11, 2012, Mack was killed in a car accident, and the Walter Pierce Park Archaeological Team lost its “heart and soul,” Belcher says. “He was irreplaceable, really.”
Although the majority of the investigation was complete, a few analyses remained. Mack’s colleagues from the New York African Burial Ground helped finish his work.
This year, Washington Parks and People commissioned a ground-penetrating radar study. Jarrod Burks, an archaeologist with Ohio Valley Archaeology, based in Columbus, Ohio, conducted it. He hasn’t filed his final report, but he said in an e-mail that while the ground has been badly disturbed, “[t]here is at least one, or two, areas where I was able to collect some good data on ground that had not been as disturbed, and in these areas I managed to detect what I think are graves.”
Belcher finished the archaeological team’s report this month and submitted it to archaeologist Ruth Trocolli in the D.C. Historic Preservation Office. It will be released to the public at Saturday’s memorial ceremony.
The report claims that thousands of graves containing human remains are still beneath the park and recommends that development be kept to a minimum. It also calls for protecting all skeletal remains, establishing a commemorative space in the park and nominating the site to the National Register of Historic Places.
“A hundred thirty years later, we need to repair this history,” Belcher says.
Trocolli hasn’t reviewed the report yet, but she says she’s convinced that “there’s definitely some human remains.” However, she objects to Belcher’s characterization of the city’s erosion-mediation efforts, arguing they have been necessary to protect both the parkland and the cemetery beneath it.
Belcher’s staunch efforts to preserve the cemetery are occasionally at odds with others who want to see park facilities improve, Trocolli says. “Mary is a tireless advocate for the park, but her vision of the park. One of the aspects of the park is that it’s both a cemetery and a park, and both deserve consideration.”
Nearly everyone agrees on one thing: Some kind of permanent memorial is warranted.
Justin Dunnavant, one of the Howard University students who worked with Mack and currently a graduate student studying anthropology at the University of Florida, says a memorial is essential for commemorating the sacred spaces of people who historically have been denied full equality. “When I pass, I want to know whether my remains will be honored and respected, or if they will be the location of a condo or a dog park.”