Calloway Cemetery preservation unearths Arlington community’s roots


A tombstone marks the grave of someone born in 1888 at an old African American cemetery Feb. 23 that sits adjacent to Calloway United Methodist Church in Arlington. The cemetery is the first to be designated as an Arlington Historic Site. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)
February 24, 2012

When Saundra Green looks over the compact cemetery adjacent to Calloway United Methodist Church in Arlington, she sees a history of her community.

The oldest grave contains Margaret Hyson, who died in 1891 and was a slave on the Hall’s Hill plantation before emancipation. Under another marker is Hesakiah Dorsey, a slave who joined the Union Army during the Civil War and who had 17 children. Green’s great-grandfather, T.W. Hyson, is buried here, too; in 1927, he was a principal at then-segregated Chesterbrook High School in Fairfax County.

And there’s Louise Bolden, who died, according to Green’s family history, on the way to tell relatives about another death in the family.

“I also have two uncles buried here who we can’t find: my mother’s brothers Leon and Ernest,” Green said.

Burials at Calloway Cemetery ended in 1959, and over time, gravestones fell or slumped. People forgot who rested in unmarked plots; the lawn became bumpy and uneven. Congregants who gather on the church’s driveway after services have done their best to keep the grass cut and the weeds trimmed.

Now Arlington County is about to designate the tiny plot at 5000 Lee Hwy. as a local historic district, ensuring that it will be protected and that the county will have to review proposed changes.

County preservation planner Cynthia Liccese-Torres said members of the church approached officials two years ago about preserving and restoring the cemetery. Liccese-Torres, who has worked for the county for 11 years, began looking at census and historical data.

She unearthed a 1985 survey of cemeteries by the Arlington Genealogical Club. She circulated a questionnaire at the church to tease out oral reports of who might be buried there. She found an archaeologist who could gently probe the property and identify between 40 and 50 “lost” graves and uncover markers buried by time and soil. Her best estimate is that about 100 people are buried in the 7,100-square-foot lawn.

She found the project fascinating. One of the most eye-opening moments was when she discovered small crosses on a Virginia Department of Transportation map of Lee Highway. It turned out that when the highway was widened in 1960, 10 bodies were exhumed. The state could not identify the deceased, but there was a record of where they were taken: Coleman Cemetery, in the Alexandria section of southern Fairfax County. Last year, some church members went there to look for the graves but did not find them.

“As far as we know, the people who were removed were in unmarked graves, and it’s possible” they are buried together in an unmarked grave at Coleman, ­Liccese-Torres said.

The information, especially the details from old census records, was welcomed by the 156 members of the 145-year-old church.

“It gave us so much more family history,” Green said. “It’s a lot . . . that this new generation of us didn’t know. We didn’t know how to find it. For the community, it’s important to know the African American history of Arlington, because it’s very prominent and it goes back more than 140 years.”

Calloway United was established in 1866 by freed slaves, some of whom bought land from plantation owners William Marcey and Bazil Hall, for whom they had worked. Its members formed the stable, close-knit community called Highview Park/Hall’s Hill.

The community was self-contained in many ways, including by a notorious eight-foot-tall fence along 17th Road North that separated it from its white neighbors until the 1950s. Black residents built their own businesses — a barber shop, two ice stores, a fire station, a newspaper and a bus company. Health needs were cared for by a midwife and a physician. A folklorist wrote a book about the neighborhood, drawing on its oral history.

In 1959, Calloway’s members were among the four youngsters who integrated all-white Stratford Junior High, the first Arlington County public school to challenge Virginia’s “massive resistance” opposition to desegregation. In the 1960s, the church housed civil rights demonstrators headed to the big marches and protests in the District, while its members worked to desegregate local lunch counters, hospitals and theaters.

In advance of the county’s designation of Calloway Cemetery as historic, church members are making plans. They’d like to put in a fence, clean and raise some of the markers, and level the ground. It’s not yet clear how they will pay for the improvements, but that hasn’t diminished support.

“We are thrilled because some members of our church didn’t realize their own grandparents were here,” said Rev. Sonja Oliver, the church pastor, who arrived in June to find research well underway. “This cemetery is extremely significant in the lives of people because it fills a void. It’s a missing piece in so many people’s lives — that sense of heritage and pride.”

On a sunny, breezy day, as clouds blew south and several old tree stumps adorned with cheery artificial flowers stood sentinel, Green and Oliver looked pleased.

“This is not just about the past,” Oliver said. “It’s the future. A legacy is only as good as its life span.”

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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