A cold November wind blowing through Woodlawn Cemetery in Southeast Washington rustles the tall weeds among the broken and vandalized tombstones. At the top of the gently rounded hill, a lone pine tree stands guard over the few granite memorials that have survived the decades of neglect.
Once one of the prestigious burying grounds for blacks in the District, the Benning Heights cemetery not only is threatened by a lack of attention but also is facing an attempt by the cemetery's owners, the Woodlawn Cemetery Association, to sell a section to a developer, possibly Metro.
Efforts by several people to save the cemetery at 4611 Benning Rd. SE during the past 15 years have failed to safeguard the stones or maintain the grounds. Now, some people say that the salvation of the cemetery lies in selling a part of it, while others say that its future is intertwined with its past.
"It is a historic cemetery and has a strong connection to the old families of Washington," said Enez Martin, president of the Woodlawn Cemetery Perpetual Care Association. "It is worthy of the historic designation, and it needs the protection. The cemetery should never be anything but a historic site."
Woodlawn was one of 50 cemeteries in the city when it opened in 1895, but now there are only 20. As the city expanded rapidly after the Civil War, cemeteries that had once been in country settings were suddenly in prime development areas. Many within the old city limits south of Florida Avenue were closed, including Graceland Cemetery at 15th and H streets NE, the present site of Hechinger Mall.
Congressional Cemetery, the 180-year-old historic cemetery at 1801 E St. SE, was saved from becoming a housing development when volunteers took over the deteriorating graveyard in 1975. They now are able to maintain it, and again they are offering burial lots for sale. It was declared a historic site in 1979.
Historians speculate that Woodlawn opened because of the closing of Graceland in 1894. Six thousand bodies from Graceland were reinterred at Woodlawn between 1895 and 1898.
More than 36,000 bodies are buried in the 92-year-old Woodlawn cemetery, but few burials have taken place at the weed-choked and barely passable 23-acre graveyard since the 1960s.
Once surrounded by farm land, Woodlawn now has single-family houses, an elementary school, an auto junkyard and a newly built soup kitchen on its borders. Metro opened a subway station about four blocks away several years ago.
A pitted asphalt drive leads from an open pedestrian gate to a graceful hill studded with a dozen upright granite tombstones, including one erected for Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi, the first black U.S. senator, who later took up residence on the 900 block of M Street NW. Nearby is the memorial to John Mercer Langston, a dean of the Howard University law school, who became the first black from Virginia to be elected to the House of Representatives.
"There are schoolteachers, pastors, military people, professors, senators and writers buried there," said Martin, whose volunteer group was organized in 1973 to restore the burial ground. "It is a cemetery with strong connections to the District schools and Howard University."
A study done about 10 years ago for the perpetual care association by Elsie Brown Smith, whose father, the Rev. Sterling N. Brown, is buried at Woodlawn, found that eight of the educators interred there had District schools named for them.
Although the cemetery was integrated, Smith found that separate sections were set aside for each race and that after 1912 the number of whites buried at Woodlawn declined.
No perpetual care funds were ever established for Woodlawn, and as burial lots were sold and then filled,little money was available for maintenance. A company purchased the remaining lots in 1961 and tried in vain to return the cemetery to active use. The ownership of the cemetery shifted to the Woodlawn Cemetery Association in 1970.
Since then the two associations have tried to raise money to administer and restore the cemetery. So far they have been able to raise only enough money to cut the grass and weeds twice a year at an annual cost of $10,000.
George Dines, president of the cemetery association, said his group had offered to sell the back part of the cemetery facing Texas Avenue SE to Metro, among others. So far, he said, there are no takers for the land, which is priced at $1 million.
"The land is still available," Dines said. "We would be only too glad to sell it as a way to provide for the perpetual care of Woodlawn. We have talked to several morticians and undertakers in hopes they might build a chapel and viewing room on the land."
Martin, however, said that her group has a five-year plan to raise money but that it does not include the sale of any part of the cemetery.
One of the cemetery's biggest supporters is longtime Brookland resident Vivian Ashton, who has lobbied members of Congress and District officials to help preserve the cemetery but has found little support.
"They have no right to sell it, because that cemetery has been a cemetery for too long," she said. "There are veterans buried there from every war since the Civil War. It is unfair to just dig them up and move them in a box to another location."
Ashton, who is interested in the preservation of all of the city's cemeteries, said the District government should take control of Woodlawn and restore it as a tourist attraction.
So far, restoration of the cemetery has not gone well. About five years ago, tons of dirt were dumped in the cemetery to fill sunken graves. The dirt ended up burying hundreds of tombstones and damaging others.
"The headstone of my husband's grandfather just disappeared. It was four feet tall," Martin said. "I have walked and walked in the cemetery, and I can't find it. That has caused me real heartache."
H. Minton Francis, a past president of the perpetual care association, said members were led to believe that the fill would be done carefully and that no stones would be buried.
But Dines, president of the cemetery association since 1978, said, "We had to do what we had to do. We had little money. If we had millions to invest and a cadre of men to watch over each stone, we might have saved more of the stones. Others may do landfill by wheelbarrow, but we did not have the money."
Dines said there were no plans to unearth the covered stones as part of the restoration of the cemetery.
Martin said her group is looking at various ways to raise $45,000, enough to prepare the cemetery for a Memorial Day ceremony. In the past, the group has offered calendars for sale with histories of various people buried at Woodlawn.
"Last May 30th, we took turns and kept the gates opened for all three days," she said. "We only had 15 people who came to visit. They seemed shocked that we were open. Many thought the cemetery had been sold."