In Search of Peace For an Old Resting Place

Ana Hernandez cheers on friends on the soccer field at Walter C. Pierce Community Park, which was built on land that was part of a black cemetery.
Ana Hernandez cheers on friends on the soccer field at Walter C. Pierce Community Park, which was built on land that was part of a black cemetery. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 3, 2006

Someone loved them once, enough to mark their graves with painted boards and oyster shells. A whitewashed fence enclosed the graveyard, and the families who belonged to the Colored Union Benevolent Association in 1870 no doubt took pride in knowing they had secured something society often denied them: a dignified resting place all their own.

But as time passed, the peace of the property on Adams Mill Road NW was disturbed repeatedly. An unknown number of graves were removed as various projects chipped at the site. Roads were widened, and buildings sprang up nearby. In the 1970s, a city park was constructed on part of the land, and the bustling Adams Morgan neighborhood around it seemed to forget that the cemetery had ever existed.

Last year, when neighbors began finding pieces of human bone poking through the earth at Walter C. Pierce Community Park, the past came flying back to be dealt with and reconciled. The D.C. government halted a soil-erosion project at the park, and a Howard University team will begin surveying the area this month to find out what needs to be done to protect any remaining graves.

"It's a health issue, but you can also look at it as a spiritual issue," said Mark E. Mack, a biological anthropologist at Howard who is leading the study. He said he would not consider closing the park or removing any remains but probably would recommend that eroded areas be filled.

Historians also hope to find a way to memorialize the people, many of whom had just emerged from slavery and worked as barbers, drivers and laborers in late 19th-century Washington. In their efforts to build some sense of community by honoring their dead, they shed light on a poignant time in African American history.

"Because I know the history of the place, I had a responsibility as a human being to see they took proper care," said Mary Belcher, a neighborhood resident and history buff who has long lobbied on behalf of the cemetery. "We want to revive the understanding that there are people buried there."

Untold numbers have lived and died on Earth, and it is inevitable that one man's grave can become, over time, another man's playground. But in this case, it appears that sketchy records and perhaps negligent attitudes on the part of long-ago officials contributed to a haphazard accounting of those laid to rest in the cemetery.

The site was active for 20 years, from 1870 to 1890, when the D.C. Health Department ordered it closed because of marshy soil. But death records, along with an 1889 newspaper account, indicate that it was one of the busiest cemeteries of its day, with nearly 7,000 burials on its seven acres during 15 of those years, Belcher said.

From there, however, the numbers are unclear. A series of disinterments began in 1890, when the National Zoo, which abuts the site, bought a 1.7-acre strip. More graves were removed when Adams Mill Road was widened at the turn of the century. In 1940, when a developer bought the abandoned graveyard, a disinterment permit was obtained for as many as 1,500 bodies that were reburied at Woodlawn Cemetery in Southeast Washington, Belcher said. But a health inspector later announced that 129 graves were found on the site with human remains.

That was not the end of it. A D.C. newspaper reported in 1959 that police and health inspectors were called to the site after 14 incomplete human skeletons were uncovered.

The tendency of others to forget about or cavalierly dismiss these cemeteries was not unusual, given the times and prevailing attitudes, Mack said. In 1991, part of an 18th-century African American cemetery was discovered at the construction site of a federal building in New York near present-day City Hall. Within a year, workers had unearthed more than 400 skeletal remains, but historians believe as many as 20,000 people may have been buried in the vicinity.

"For a lot of people, basically powerless in the past, what happened to their sacred resting places? They got developed over," said Mack, who was involved in the New York project.

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