Mount Zion has always been Washington's cemetery of maybes. Its future may be determined by next summer, but for now it is more uncertain than ever.
Maybe Mount Zion will remain the small, mostly black cemetery it has been for 137 years. And maybe it will be dug up to make way for a luxury apartment house overlooking Rock Creek Park.
Maybe the National Park Service will take over Mount Zion and develop the site into a parklike "living cemetery." And maybe the Park Service won't have the money.
Maybe Congress will designate the site a national historic landmark and appropriate the money (between $1 million and $2 million) necessary to preserve Mount Zion. But Congress hasn't moved yet, despite two years of draft bills and lobbying. And maybe it won't.
Amid all the maybes about this two-acre plot near 27th and Q Streets NW are three certainties:
Mount Zion is in terrible condition. Dozens of the cemetery's 3,000 headstones have been stolen, pulled out of the ground and stacked like pancakes or strewn about. Many other headstones have been covered by chest-high weeds. Security, and any indication of a recent visit by a lawnmower, are nonexistent.
The cemetery is the last morsel of physical historic evidence that blacks dominated the social and religious life of Georgetown from the Civil War until World War Ii. It is also one of the few burial grounds where both German mercenary soldiers from the Civil War and black slaves who "rode" the underground railroad are buried.
There is considerable interest among many diverse groups in maintaining Mount Zion as a cemetery and restoring it. A street fair, run by a group of Georgetown churches in early October on behalf of Mount Zion, brought out several hundred people and brought in almost $4,000.
Meanwhile, Vincent DeForrest, a 42-year-old Washington architect, has drafted a "living cemetery" design that he hopes will spur Congress and the Park Service to take over the cemetery and pay for its restoration.
"Death is life, and death should be an expression of life," said DeForrest, whose plans for Mount Zion include shaded walkways, guided tours and historical displays.
"Right now, people walk through there or jog right by there and never know the history of the area. Death as an institution in the black experience was so important. We want to get away from the idea that cemeteries are places to stay away from."
The outlook for the funds needed to restore Mount Zion is "cloudy at best," according to a Capitol Hill source familiar with the workings of the House subcommittee on interior and insular affairs.
The reason: There is not enough money to fund all the sites in the country that local leaders want designated as historical landmarks, the source said.
The Park Service is interested in operating a renewed Mount Zion because "there seems to be a good deal of interest in it on the part of local citizens," said Robert L. Nunn, special assistant to the director for urban affairs. But the Park Service has not lobbied Congress for the historical landmark diesignation, and "we can't run it ourselves with the money we have now," Nunn said.
One possibility the Park Service is studying is to acquire Mount Zion, merge it with Rock Creek Park (which the service already owns and maintains) and pay for the cemetery's restoration out of funds earmarked for the park.
Nunn noted that this approach would avoid any need to designate the cemetery a historical landmark or obtain special funds from Congress. But there is no gurantee that funds would be available, Nunn said.
Jack Fish, director of the Park Service's national capital region, said he is "not opposed to (taking over) Mount Zion Cemetery if legislation goes through." But he said his office is neither lobbying for legislation nor expecting congressional action before next year.