“What we are really talking about is how we will tell the story of this time,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). “That’s the responsibility of our generation.”
The three gathered at Caledon State Park along the Potomac River to officially launch a joint effort to honor the families of a historic African American cemetery once located in D.C. — the headstones of which were sold for scrap six decades ago.
The ceremony marked the first time the three leaders have met in person since the coronavirus pandemic shut down society nearly 18 months ago. Their matching black Chevrolet Suburbans — with license plates from each part of the D.C. area — suggested the way the tale of Columbian Harmony Cemetery stretches across the region.
Founded in 1825 and relocated in 1859, Columbian Harmony was the final resting place for some 37,000 African American families over more than a century of use. Some of D.C.’s leading Black citizens were buried there, including Elizabeth Keckley, confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln; James Wormley, owner of the famous Wormley Hotel; and Philip Reid, who helped create the statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol.
A developer bought the property and dug up the graves in 1960 to make way for commercial development. It’s now the site of the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station.
Most of the bodies were relocated to National Harmony Memorial Park cemetery in Landover, Md., in the shadow of FedEx Field, just to the east.
But the headstones just disappeared. In 2016, Richard and Lisa Stuart were walking along the Potomac east of Fredericksburg and solved the mystery: Among the chunks of stone and concrete riprap protecting the shoreline from erosion were the missing headstones.
Richard Stuart — who had just bought the riverfront property — happens to be a Republican state senator in Virginia and contacted Northam for help identifying and rescuing the headstones.
“We start the last leg of our journey, I hope, today,” Stuart said Monday before a gathering of dozens of state officials and descendants of families connected to Columbian Harmony.
Last fall, after historians connected the headstones to Columbian Harmony, volunteers spent three days fishing as many broken-up stones out of the river as they could. Stuart used his tractor to haul the pieces of 55 markers to Caledon State Park, adjacent to his property.
At Northam’s request, the Virginia General Assembly this year approved spending $4 million to relocate the stones and honor the lives they represent. The state has begun seeking proposals to create a garden-like “living” memorial, along the river shore where the stones were found.
Northam has ordered the Virginia National Guard to assist with transporting the recovered stones to National Harmony in Maryland, and Hogan said on Monday that he has authorized the Maryland National Guard to pitch in as well.
Guard members will also return to the site in the coming weeks to begin an effort to recover as many more headstones as possible. Virginia sent a drone flying along more than two miles of shoreline and identified several areas that appear to be clumps of headstones.
“We don’t know how many there are — there could be 37,000, that’s how many people were in the cemetery,” said Clyde Cristman, who, as head of Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, has been leading the effort among state officials.
The owners of National Harmony have set aside a one-acre plot at the entrance to the parklike grounds for a memorial to Columbian Harmony. Many of the headstones will wind up there.
On Monday, Bowser said she had instructed the city’s Commemorative Works Committee to explore ways to “be sure this story is properly told.” Only a small metal plaque at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station now marks the site of the former cemetery.
But some of the most intense work that has been underway for the past year has been linking the names on recovered headstones to the lives and families they represent. Lex Musta, an amateur historian, has been coordinating a growing army of volunteer researchers, along with the nonprofit History, Arts, and Science Action Network (HASAN), which has been retained by the state.
So far, about 20 of the recovered stones have been linked to living descendants, Musta said, and professional genealogists have volunteered to track down the rest. One of the first stones found was a memorial to Elbert Cole, the 4-year-old grandson of Wormley, who was one of the most famous businessmen of the 19th century, Black or White.
Another is a marker for Maceo S. Wiseman, who when he died at age 19 in 1923 was one of the nation’s most promising young Black tennis players. His father, the Rev. Daniel E. Wiseman, was one of D.C.’s leading Black pastors.
Ezra Greenspan, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas, learned about the headstone project through his work on a biography of the extended family of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Two of Douglass’s sons were buried at Columbian Harmony, along with numerous other relatives.
Greenspan has been working with Musta to pin down how many Black military veterans were buried in the cemetery — a number thought to be from 200 to 400, including many who served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.
Pandemic restrictions have stalled their efforts to research pension documents at the National Archives, Greenspan said. He added that he hopes to eventually write sketches of each life they can document and make them available online.
“We just want to find a way to humanize these individuals,” he said.
The largest monument recovered so far is in three pieces — a broken obelisk carved with Masonic symbols and the name Robert T. Williams, who lived from 1841-1901.
Williams was the grand master of a Prince Hall Masonic lodge in Washington — the African American branch of Freemasonry founded in Boston in 1784.
“Prince Hall Freemasonry in D.C. really served as a gateway for a lot of these people who were newly freed from the South,” said James R. Morgan III, historian of the organization’s Grand Lodge in D.C. Morgan has been working to help track down other Freemasons who were buried in the cemetery.
The fact that their headstones were discarded like trash “just really turned my stomach, really made me sick,” he said. “What happened there is a symptom of a much deeper psychosis, a much deeper disease, a much deeper problem in America. My hope is that with the work we’re doing, we’re providing a model for how restorative justice can still be brought forward in communities that have dealt with similar situations.”
To Frank Smith, who runs D.C.’s African American Civil War Museum, the indignity inflicted on the headstones is turning out to have an unexpected power.
“This may end up making these names even more compelling, because of what’s going to happen to them now,” Smith said Monday at a reception in Stuart’s home following the ceremony. “This is another way to write American history.”