KING GEORGE COUNTY, Va. — Richard and Lisa Stuart were walking beside the Potomac River when they noticed an odd rock in the riprap on the water's edge.
A state senator, Stuart enlisted Virginia historians to figure out where they came from. The trail led upriver to the nation’s capital, and illuminated a dark truth about how Washington became the city it is today: The headstones were from Columbian Harmony Cemetery, a historic African American burial ground that was dug up and relocated in 1960 to make way for commercial development.
Now the site of the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station and surrounding shops and condos, Columbian Harmony had been the final resting place for a century’s worth of D.C.’s most illustrious Black citizens. Among them: Elizabeth Keckley, confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln; Philip Reid, who helped create the statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol dome; and scores of Black Civil War veterans from the Union Army.
But it wasn’t just famous names. Some 37,000 people were laid to rest there between 1859 and 1960. Columbian Harmony is among at least five major African American cemeteries in D.C. that were obliterated in the past century for the sake of development.
Even in the annals of such destruction, it is unusual to find a trove of so many headstones discarded like scrap, said Michael L. Blakey, director of the Institute for Historical Biology at William & Mary.
“It is dehumanizing,” said Blakey, who has studied historical Black cemeteries around the country. He draws a connection between destroying cemeteries and the police brutality against African Americans that has triggered protests this year. “Racism is about dehumanizing people so that they can be dealt with without empathy. . . . This is just another manifestation of a knee on a neck for eight minutes or a body left in the middle of a street for four hours.”
In this case, at least, there is an effort to atone. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has stepped in to help Stuart, and the state has enlisted a nonprofit group to remove as many headstones as possible from the river. Through a tentative deal with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), there are plans to send many of the headstones to the relocated cemetery in Landover, Md., and create memorials in both Maryland and Virginia.
For descendants, the discovery solves a mystery and reveals an indignity that some had never known existed.
“When I was told, I was very angry. I’d never even heard about this,” said Tarence Bailey, 45, of Talbot County, Md., whose five-times great-grandfather was buried at Columbian Harmony by Frederick Douglass, who was his younger brother. “I knew about moving the cemetery, but as far as taking the headstones and chucking them in the river — that’s a level of disrespect that goes beyond. That’s desecration of graves.”
Old pictures of the Columbian Harmony Cemetery show a pastoral landscape of trees and rolling lawns dotted with headstones.
Columbian was the District’s first burial society for free Blacks when it formed in 1825. Its original cemetery was bounded by Fifth, Sixth and S streets and Florida Avenue NW. Those graves were moved to a larger location at Ninth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE around 1859, according to city documents.
Those roughly 30 acres were the city’s busiest Black burial ground between 1880 and 1920, the D.C. planning office said in a report on the city’s cemeteries.
Owned by several families, the burial society had fallen on hard financial times by the 1950s. A developer named Louis Bell tried for years to buy the acreage. By 1960 he finally succeeded, promising to relocate all the graves to a new cemetery in Prince George’s County, Md.
Headstones, though, were hauled off as scrap. A former owner of Stuart’s farm in Virginia bought several truckloads to build up his shoreline.
Apparently some of the burials didn’t make the move, either. The city bought the property from Bell in 1967, according to news accounts of the era, and when Metro began construction in the early 1970s, the work unearthed human remains. Newspaper articles described at least five coffins at the site, piles of dirt containing bones, and — during work on a parking lot in 1979 — “pieces of dark cloth, fragments of coffin and bones.”
Today, a small metal plaque at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station is the last reminder of the lost cemetery. Commuters rush past toward buses and parking lots or head to the upscale shops nearby. On the pedestrian bridge that swoops over the train tracks, someone has spray-painted “Black Lives Matter.”
The graves were relocated to what is now National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, where many remain unidentified. National Harmony’s current owners — a national network based in Texas with more than 2,000 locations — say the original handwritten records can pinpoint the location of some bodies, but not all.
National Harmony covers more than 100 hilly acres in the shadow of FedEx Field, a manicured oasis barely visible from suburban roadways. Atop the cemetery’s highest point, the dome of the U.S. Capitol and its statue of Freedom mark the distant skyline.
Violetta Sharps Jones, 72, has been coming to National Harmony for much of her life to pay respects to her deceased family members, though she has no idea where the earliest ones lie. Until she learned the truth late last month, Jones said she always assumed her ancestors were too poor to afford headstones.
“You see how devastating that is?” she said.
Righting a wrong
Stuart’s farm is an unlikely solution to the mystery of the missing headstones.
A former plantation, the property had been in Stuart’s family for generations until it was sold during the Great Depression. John Wilkes Booth stopped nearby during his escape after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, but Stuart’s great-great-great-uncle, Dr. Richard Henry Stuart, refused to treat the suspicious fugitive’s wounded ankle.
Today, most of the farm’s 1,400 acres are covered by a conservation easement that prevents further development. Stuart, a lawyer, bought it in 2016 and moved there with his wife and children. The passage of years had done little to harm the Stuart family’s own historical burial ground on the property, which features elegant marble tombstones behind an iron fence near the home.
“It was an incredibly special time for me to be able to buy back the property where my people came to America, literally, in the 1600s,” Stuart said. His discovery of those other grave markers — broken and muddy — was a sharp contrast. “If I were the descendant of those folks whose stones landed on the shoreline of the river, I would be angry. The dead are supposed to be revered and respected,” he said.
A Republican whose state Senate district starts along the Potomac near Montross and stretches through Stafford and western Prince William counties into Loudoun, Stuart turned to state officials for help with his situation.
He and Clyde Cristman, who heads Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, consulted with historians who traced names on the headstones to Columbian Harmony. After two years, the officials were still figuring out what to do about them when a part-time historian named Lex Musta showed up with a plan.
Musta, 48, says he specializes in “restorative justice.” He had known about the abandoned headstones since 2009, when someone kayaking on the Potomac posted pictures of them on a blog.
After working to restore historical African American burial places in South Carolina, Musta had moved to the District and begun volunteering at the African American Civil War Museum.
Haunted by the photos of the abandoned headstones, Musta resolved to assemble a group of volunteers and rescue as many of the markers as possible. Because the shoreline was adjacent to Caledon State Park, he called Cristman to see about getting permission.
Cristman said that the state couldn’t hand over tombstones to a private individual but that if there was a nonprofit willing to take on the job, state law might allow Stuart to donate the grave markers. Musta took the idea to the History, Arts, and Science Action Network (HASAN), a group formed by historian Kelley Fanto Deetz and adventurer/filmmaker Justin Fornal. The two had met years earlier on a National Geographic film about the insurrectionist Nat Turner.
“We’re trying to fix these broken bits of our past,” Deetz said, describing how the project fit with her group’s goals. “I’m getting goose bumps right now thinking about this.”
It took roughly a year of planning, but work got underway in mid-September. Northam went to the site to see the first few headstones that had been reclaimed from the river.
“People need to hear about this,” Northam said to the group assembled for the work. “Anything that we can do at the state level working with you and telling the stories — it’s a powerful story.”
Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, has coordinated efforts with his counterparts in Maryland and the District. A draft memorandum of agreement calls for transferring as many headstones as possible to National Harmony, which has agreed to take them, and creating a memorial garden for those who were buried at Columbian Harmony inside the cemetery’s entrance. Mercer said he’s hoping to line up National Guard troops to escort the stones in their travels.
“It’s an incredible story connecting the three jurisdictions,” said Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci, who said his office is working with Northam “to make sure the headstones are appropriately returned where they should be.”
The District hopes to be involved in researching the history of the people who were buried at Columbian Harmony, said Andrew Trueblood, director of the D.C. Office of Planning. “Especially at this particular moment in time, given the Black Lives Matter movement and other things, it is obviously an incredibly important and resonant story,” he said. “We can’t change the past, but we can commemorate it better.”
Stuart and Northam both said they intend to create a parklike memorial along the Potomac shore atop any headstones that cannot be removed — an effort that might involve the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because of its effect on wetlands, Mercer said.
Costs remain unclear, but Mercer assured those gathered last month for the first day of work that funding would not be an obstacle.
“We have money, and budgets reflect [our] values. We’re going to pay for this. I don’t want to hear about having to fundraise to do what’s right,” he said. “This is a collective shame that we should feel, but also we can do the right thing.”
For several days, Fornal and a small group from HASAN slept in tents at the nearby state park and went out in kayaks in the early morning to survey the shoreline, marking headstones by GPS coordinates. Wading into waist-deep water, they used heavy machinery on shore to slowly extract blocks of stone that could weigh as much as 1,000 pounds.
“They’re covered with all kinds of debris — big pieces of driftwood, other big pieces of concrete that have really locked them in,” Fornal said. “A lot of them were face down. So I’d have to dig my hand into the dirt and then stick my hand underneath it and then you feel — you start to feel the writing. And you’re like, ‘Okay, stop everything, we found one.’ ”
The group recovered about 50 — an initial batch, with more to be retrieved later. Stuart donned a pair of overalls and drove a tractor to haul the headstones to a gathering place at the state park.
Musta had contacted several families with connections to the cemetery and invited them down for a look. The stones were laid out on wooden pallets in neat rows.
“Just amazing,” said William D. Hart, 61, of Oxon Hill, Md., who came with his wife and two adult sons. His great-grandfather, William Henry Harrison Hart, was a trailblazing lawyer and professor who helped establish the first law school building at Howard University.
In 1904, Hart tested Jim Crow laws by refusing to move to a “colored car” when his train crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Maryland. He was arrested, and he pursued the case until a federal appeals court ruled that Maryland’s racist law could not be applied across state lines.
The professor died in 1935 and was buried in Columbian Harmony Cemetery. Growing up, the younger Hart revered his ancestor and often visited the relocated grave at National Harmony, though he wondered why such an accomplished man had no headstone.
“The story always was, nobody knows. It was a big mystery,” Hart said. About 15 years ago, he bought a stone bench and had it placed there in commemoration.
A Virginia teen saw a historic black cemetery in disrepair. He recruited his fellow Boy Scouts to restore it.
Learning that the original marker might be out there, somewhere, is reassuring, Hart said. One tangible connection has already surfaced: A dredged-up stone bore the family name Terrell, and Hart has found that name repeatedly in his ancestor’s correspondence.
“I’m way beyond anger and sadness. The feeling evoked most in me is elation that [the headstones] even exist and that there’s a connection to my great-grandfather,” he said. “This is incredibly restorative for us.”
Others were struggling to process the revelations.
“I’m filled with mixed feelings,” said the Rev. Jerome Plummer-Fowler, 73. “Families spent exorbitant money to pay for these memorials. And for them to just be discarded as they were. . .”
Plummer-Fowler had numerous ancestors in the old cemetery. He doesn’t recall visiting it as a child, but does remember the news stories about bones being found when the Metro station was built.
“It was scandalous,” he said. “It’s disgraceful.”
No one is sure how many headstones might lie out in the mud — probably hundreds, possibly thousands. The older ones made of limestone are worn almost smooth by 60 years in the river, but the granite stones often look brand new.
At least one weathered stone is shaped similarly to those that mark graves of U.S. Colored Troops — the Black soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War. More than 400 such veterans are thought to have been buried in Columbian Harmony, including at least two Medal of Honor recipients, according to Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Memorial Museum.
Musta has been researching names as the stones emerge from the river. “Each of these stories is so incredible,” he said.
Benjamin and Maggie L. Whipps were the parents of William W. Whipps, an early Black pharmacist and co-founder of the Washington Association of Colored Druggists.
Harry Clinton Lee, born in 1864, was one of D.C.’s first Black police officers.
Mercer Alexander was the son of Sandy Alexander, a Civil War veteran who founded several churches in Washington. The father was also buried in the cemetery, but his headstone has not been found.
Even without knowing the backgrounds, each stone carries quiet power. “A loving husband, devoted father and faithful friend,” reads one. “Our beloved father,” reads another. A giant stone scroll, broken off above the name, is inscribed with a poem: “Who took me from my mother’s breast/ And rocked me when I could not rest/ Who now is by the angels blest/ My grandmother.”
Kevin Douglass Greene, 59, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., has gone to the site several times since learning about the headstones. His great-grandfather was a son of Frederick Douglass and was buried at Columbian Harmony, as was Greene’s grandfather.
Standing on the shore one day last month, Greene said it was hard not to fantasize about turning over a stone and finding a familiar name. But he knew that was unlikely.
Instead, he said he took comfort just knowing something connected with his family was out there. Wearing black rubberized gloves and steadying himself on a pile of driftwood, Greene tilted an obvious headstone in the riprap toward the light: “Annie Wells,” it said, the date of death worn away.
“At least we’re finding someone’s family,” Greene said. “I can’t walk away disappointed.”