To lend support in times of sickness and death, a group of free blacks formed the Columbia Harmony Society in 1825 and established the city's first cemetery for blacks at Fifth, Sixth, S and Boundary streets NW.
In 1856, the cemetery was moved to Ninth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE, and during the Civil War both black and white soldiers were buried there.
More than 100 years later, in 1960, a developer purchased the land and began a two-year process of moving 37,000 bodies to the National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover. Today the burial ground is part of the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.
Paul Sluby, a former District police officer, knows the background of Harmony Cemetery and several others in the city. Unearthing the history of Washington's cemeteries fascinates Sluby, who believes that tombstones and cemetery records contain important pieces of the city's past and can help those trying to trace their roots.
"It is not only interesting," said Sluby, who has become an expert on the cemeteries in the city, "it is a valuable source of history."
The work of reconstructing history from shreds of information found in city records and newspaper clippings is difficult and extraordinarily time consuming, he said, and it restores "just a drop in the bucket" of the local history that otherwise would be lost forever.
The city was once dotted with cemeteries that have disappeared as the city has grown. One is now the site of a Northeast shopping mall, another is in Adams-Morgan.
Sluby was introduced to the rich vein of information inscribed on tombstones or buried in church and cemetery records when he became a genealogist after tracing his own family history.
He found that the city kept haphazard death records before 1855 and did not require death certificates until 1871. So he found himself relying on often incomplete church and cemetery records. He visited old burial grounds, writing down every inscription not obliterated by weather and time.
Just finding proper records poses problems in patching together an accurate picture of the past, Sluby said. Estimates on the total interments at Western Burial Grounds range from 3,000 to 10,000.
Western was one of two public burial grounds established by the city of Washington in the 1790s. It was bounded by 19th, 20th, S and Boundary streets. Boundary Street, so named because it marked the city's northern border, is now Florida Avenue.
Both blacks and whites were buried at Western, according to Sluby's research, but the races were separated by a thorn fence and a ravine until 1888 when the cemetery was moved.
The other city-run burial ground, Eastern, was established between H, I, 14th and 15th streets NE. But it was little used because the land was too marshy.
Still intact on a soft slope off Chain Bridge Road NW is the Union Baptist Cemetery, begun just after the Civil War. Sluby found records of burials there from 1880 to 1930.
The Free Young Men's Burial Ground was established between 12th and 13th, V and W streets NW (later the site of the old Children's Hospital). Sluby has never uncovered its founding date, but believes it predates the Civil War.
In any event, the bodies were moved by 1879 to the Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery at Adams Mill Road and Calvert Street NW, near the Southeast entrance to the National Zoo. This was a popular black cemetery maintained by the Colored Union Beneficial Association. About 1940, the bodies were reinterred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Southeast Washington.
Graceland Cemetery was on land now covered by the Hechinger Mall at Benning Road and H streets NE. The cemetery operated from 1873 until 1894, when city expansion forced it to close.
That left Payne's Cemetery across the Anacostia River at 4600 Benning Rd. SE as the only convenient burial ground for blacks living in Northeast. Because of the need for more burial space, Woodlawn Cemetery opened at 4611 Benning Rd. SE in 1895 and received 6,000 remains from Graceland..
On the other side of the city, behind the 2500 block of Q Street NW on a Georgetown hillside, are two 19th century burial grounds commonly known as Mt. Zion Cemetery.
Burials had ceased on both sites by the 1960s. Developers, noting the desirable location and picturesque view, acquired the property and proposed removing the bodies and constructing a new development.
But the cemeteries were saved from both the ravages of neglect and the brawn of the bulldozer by concerned Washingtonians. They cleaned the park, returned the land to Mt. Zion United Methodist Church and successfully lobbied for its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
"I'm still researching," Sluby said. "This is just some of the information I have uncovered. Some to be verified and some to be disproven."