At the urging of civic groups and residents, the District will build a small memorial park at the site of the old Harmony Cemetery, founded in 1859 for the "free colored people" of the District.
The Rhode Island Metro Station sits on part of the old cemetery, and trains zoom across land where distinguished Washingtonians and Union soldiers once were buried. The park will sit on a grassy knoll owned by Metro, adjacent to the station, at the corner of Sixth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE.
Lewis Bell, a real estate investor, bought the cemetery from the Columbia Harmony Society, the cemetery's trustees, and relocated the graves in 1960. The city bought the property from him in 1967 to build the Northeast section of a proposed interstate highway. The highway plans eventually were scrapped, and the city in 1974 sold 3.6 acres of the land to Metro and built an impoundment lot on part of the remainder.
Controversy always has surrounded the cemetery's relocation. The move riled some residents. Today, some of them are dissatisfied with the city's proposed memorial, which they say will honor only black soldiers although both black and white veterans were buried in the cemetery.
Recalling the move, City Council member William Spaulding (D-Ward 5), whose ward includes the cemetery, said, "Generally, there was some concern about whether or not all of the bodies were actually moved. People were also concerned that proper respect was offered for the dead."
On May 16, 1960, heavy trucks and earth-moving machines rumbled into Harmony Cemetery to begin the two-year process of relocating an estimated 37,000 bodies to a new cemetery in Landover.
"They placed the bones in boxes the size of tissue boxes. You could smell death four blocks away," recalled Vivian Ashton, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, who for 20 years has monitored the city's promise to provide a memorial. "It was stinking to high heaven. Possums were running all over the place at night."
Ashton, who studies old black cemeteries, said she also was upset because "someone is always digging up Negro cemeteries."
She isn't delighted at all about the proposed park, to be built by the Department of Transportation. She said the questions that persisted during the cemetery relocation are still unanswered. Confusion remains about whether the graves of the Union soldiers were actually relocated to Arlington National Cemetery years before the 1960 move. And Ashton wants reassurance that any memorial will be dedicated to white as well as black soldiers.
Ashton believes there are still soldiers buried at the old cemetery site because tombstones, coffins and human remains were found at the site as late as 1979, when the city begin digging the foundation for its impoundment lot.
She had hoped for a much larger park than the one planned. She envisioned a citywide architectural design contest. DOT sponsored a contest only at Howard University; the winners was Tyrie Bivings, a fourth-year architecture student.
Bivings based part of his design on the idea that the memorial would honor black soldiers. But a longtime District resident whose father was a member of the organization that established the Harmony Cemetery said, "Of the 339 soldiers listed by the . . . War Department as being buried there, only 37 were black."
Last year, a square, bronze commemorative plaque was set in a concrete wall facing the station exit. Council member Jerry A. Moore Jr., a Metro board member, presided over the unveiling ceremony. The plaque states: "Former site of the Columbian Harmony Cemetery 1857-1959. Many distinguished black citizens, including Civil War veterans, were buried in this cemetery. These bodies now rest in the new National Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery in Maryland."
Ashton said there are two things wrong with the plaque. "Most of the soldiers buried at the park were white. And, the soldiers were--supposedly--moved about 1869 to Arlington National Cemetery," she said.
"All of the Union dead were moved to Arlington National Cemetery between 1867 and 1870," said Ed McCarthy, spokesman for the Casualty and Memorial Affairs Division of the Department of Army.
Little evidence exists that the soldiers were moved with the other graves to the Landover cemetery, partially owned by businessman Richard Bell, whose father sold the old cemetery grounds to the city, and his two sons. The Columbian Harmony Society, which established the old Harmony Cemetery, also owns stock in the new cemetery.
Most of the flat bronze plaques that mark graves are identical except for names and dates. Few markers designate a soldier's grave in the area where bodies from the old cemetery were relocated.
With no tombstones jutting from the earth to upset the lines of the plush green hills, National Harmony looks more like a park than a cemetery. There are even park benches.
If the soldiers were moved to Arlington before 1960, some people, including Moore, are not aware of it. In fact, Moore, who has made the memorial issue a personal cause, isn't sure where the bodies are.
"Theoretically, their bodies were still there," Moore said. "To my knowledge, no one had them exhumed. I never did any basic research on the cemetery. The part I participated in is trying to get a memorial."
Thomas Downs, DOT director, said the memorial will be built because "there was a feeling in the community that there should be appropriate recognition to . . . black Civil War veterans interred there."
Downs said Mayor Marion Barry asked him to see that the commitment to the community was met. But Kwasi Holman, executive assistant to the mayor, said Barry was unaware of DOT's plans.
Meanwhile, DOT held the design contest at Howard University and Bivings, 24, a native of Fresno, Calif., brushed up on the old cemetery's history before preparing his winning design.
"I used the history of the cemetery to set the tone for the design," Bivings said. "The park itself is the memorial. From the area, there's a nice view back into the community."
His design features a plaza surrounded by 13 trees, to represent the Constitution's 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. The plaza will include other trees, vegetation, benches, a site marker and a dedication marker explaining the park's significance. Downs said the park will cost no more than $10,000 because available surplus materials will be used.
The plot where the soldiers actually were buried is across the street, to the side of the Metro station. The land now is mounds of red clay and mud, scattered debris and weeds. It sits behind a branch office of Perpetual American Federal Savings and Loan Association and runs up to the city impoundment lot on Brentwood Road NE. It is on this site that Ashton and her community organization, called the "Wee Angels," want a large "Freedom Memorial Park." Ashton envisions flower beds, walkways, a chapel and a huge water fountain to honor the black and white soldiers.
"Look at what a big thing those soldiers did for us," Ashton said during a visit to the old site. "There was a road here, the entrance to the cemetery," she said, her hand sweeping across the land. "There was a regulation Army chapel about where those Johnnies are," she added, pointing to two temporary bathrooms at the impoundment lot.
She had hoped to submit the organization's plan to Barry, but before she could she learned that Moore and the DOT already had a memorial plan.
Barry's aide, Holman, said he hopes Downs will allow more community comment before plans for the park are set.
"This is something Jerry Moore did on his own, without our knowledge," Holman said. "We were working up a draft plan for the entire area, and we wanted to get together with the community agencies and get community input first. We think [DOT] should hold up the project."
Downs said, "Unless something drastic happens, the park will be built." Although the new park doesn't mean Ashton and her group won't get their larger park one day, Downs noted that for now, "it has never been adopted as part of any budget."