The sharp December wind was cutting. One of the trio muttered good-naturedly, "I'll be a block of ice." All three struggled up the gutted incline of a sprawling cemetery, symbols of the uphill battle a handful of older Washingtonians have been waging to save Woodlawn Cemetery. Today, it is an eerie tableau of decay in Southeast Washington. Less than three decades ago, it was a prized resting place for hundreds of black men and women who helped shape the history of this city and this country.
The gravestones, many of them toppled, read like a Who's Who of blacks in the nation's capital: Blanche Kelso Bruce of Mississippi, the first black U.S. senator; John Mercer Langston, first black congressman from Virginia and the first black foreign diplomat; Whitfield McKinlay, collector at the port of Georgetown; James C. Wright, "father of the three-cent carfare." Dr. John R. Francis, surgeon and civic leader; Amanda Bowen, founder of the Teachers' Benefit and Annuity Association.
I toured Woodlawn the other day with poet Sterling H. Brown, 79, (whose wife and father are buried there) and his sisters -- Helen D. Brown and Elsie B. Smith -- both of whom are cemetery historians. "My father bought 32 grave sites in 1919," says the poet of the late Sterling Nelson Brown, who taught in the Howard University Theological School and served on the D.C. Board of Education. Brown pointed to a headstone for John Mercer Langston. "He had a conference on the race problem at my father's church; he was very forward-looking."
The deterioration of this historic place has hardly been arrested, despite the effots of a few workmen laboring nearby. It is stark. It socks you in the eye -- acres of tan, yard-high weeks wave stiffly in the wind, bathroom fixtures have been thrown near some graves; neighborhood boys use the grassy areas as a football field. The ravages of vandals and time have teamed to pale the meager resources the faithful few can supply.
"So many people who work for the cemetery are old," says Helen Brown. "So many people who are fighting for it are old. We want to fix it up so it will be all right after we're gone."
Now we have to ask, do enough people beyond the dedicated few care about this cemetery? Can it be saved from total ruin and decay?
Those who care about the cemetery know that some developers would give both arms for this choice 26-acre-site on Benning Road. But the concerned won't sell. A few years back, the city threatened to condemn the cemetery on sanitary grounds and move the 35,000 bodies buried there. Bruce O. Hawkins, a printer, was enraged by that and took a stand. He organized the lot owners and enlisted the aid of lawyers. Once again, the cemetery was saved.
Nevertheless, some neighborhood associations now complain that this long-neglected burial ground, a potential monument to black history, is becoming a dumping ground, a magnet for vandals and drug pushers.
Incorporated in 1895 by a handful of whites for newly freed blacks, Woodlawn was the first integrated cemetery in Washington. The directors, however, failed to provide for perpetual care of the grounds and in time, as new cemeteries opened up to blacks, Woodlawn declined. In 1972, new officers were elected and in 1974, the Woodlawn Cemetery Perpetual Care Association was born to maintain the grounds and to put aside funds for perpetual maintenance. They set their goal at an optimistic $750,000 and have been struggling against the odds ever since.
They're dedicated, but they have neither the youthful vigor needed to raise money nor the contacts to lobby for aid. Though they've been known to attack the overgrown cemetery with their own wheelbarrows and shovels, and to have raised money from means as varied as selling calendars and lunches, the pervasive look of ruin attests to a fight that's failing.
A roaring recession certainly isn't the best time to expect people to put a cemetery high on their list of economic priorities. But could not some architectural firms come forward to donate their design services? The architect of the Capitol took care of maintenance for the historic Congressional Cemetery.
Is it a suitable project for social organizations interested in a cemetery that not only contains the bodies of a dozen men and women for whom schools in this city are named, but also those of ordinary citizens who are important, too?
A city pinched by budget worries may not see a monument to the past as deserving. But doesn't the City Council have some responsibility to honor the ones who took the early steps?
And what about historical societies from the states where some of the national figures were born? A cemetery studded with historic gravesites reaches beyond the geographical boundaries of the District of Columbia.
It's been said that the past is prologue to the future. But without the monuments that we can touch, a valuable way of understanding the past is forever lost.