Mary Belcher is a member of the grass-roots Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries Archaeology and Commemoration Project.
Walter C. Pierce Community Park in Adams Morgan is a much-used, much-loved city park. The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation plans to spend about $800,000 in changes there this fall. The projects include a new playground, dog-park water fountain and other additions.
What the list does not include so far is a commitment by city officials to provide a memorial space to recognize the 8,428 African American and Quaker Washingtonians buried in abutting 19th-century cemeteries at the site.
A group of descendants and concerned citizens has proposed a simple plan to memorialize their ancestors. But the city hasn’t said yes, apparently wary of such an odd request.
In 2005, Howard University biological anthropologist Mark Mack and I began a journey that resulted in thousands of hours of archaeological and historical research to document the Walter Pierce Park cemeteries. They were a small Friends Burying Ground founded in 1807, and the much larger Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery, established in 1870 by the Colored Union Benevolent Association.
The cemeteries were forced to close in 1890 because of neighborhood development pressures. Disruptions followed. The National Zoo, through condemnation proceedings, bought nearly a third of the seven-acre African American cemetery. In 1923, cemetery heirs sought a court order to respectfully remove graves so the remaining land could be sold. A cursory search in the 1940s resulted in the disinterment of fewer than 140 graves. Developers in the 1950s removed an undocumented number of remains by steam shovel, under the passive eyes of D.C. health inspectors. The Quakers lost their quarter-acre of land in a shady tax sale. After all development plans for the site fell by the wayside, Walter C. Pierce Community Park was established in the early 1980s.
Mack, who died in 2012, was a veteran of the African Burial Ground Project in Lower Manhattan. His work on the Walter Pierce Park cemeteries reflected a descendant-based anthropological ethos that arose from the experience he gained in New York. He always told me that our “first clients” at Walter Pierce were the 8,428 people buried in the park, whom we had managed to document by name. Our “second clients,” he said, were their living descendants.
Over the past decade and a half, the park has gone, in small ways, from a place of forgetting to one of remembering. Scientific research indicates that hundreds — possibly thousands — of graves remain in the park. Cemetery-related materials are scattered across the landscape. Through our website and public events at the park, people have found biological ancestors they never knew existed. Other members of the concerned community have found “cultural ancestors” in these early Washingtonians who lived through the greatest social upheaval in American history.
But the scientific work and profound reconnections haven’t been enough. There is still no permanent signage in the park that marks its special past.
Upon learning that the Department of Parks and Recreation would be making changes to Walter Pierce Park, descendants and their supporters proposed a modest plan for a memorial space. We call it an “Ancestors Pavilion.” It would involve no digging. It would display the 8,428 names of the buried, imprinted on signage attached to an existing low wall. Interspersed among the names would be the story of the site. More than 40 African American soldiers and sailors are buried here, and they would be highlighted. We would tell the story of the 1848 Pearl affair, the largest known Underground Railroad escape attempt in U.S. history, because buried in our cemeteries were Pearl passengers, aiders and abettors. We propose that a millstone design be incorporated in the brick pavement in front of the wall, to honor the Quaker miller who donated the land for the Friends Burying Ground in 1807. Signage would be bilingual.
At community meetings over the past year, city officials have presented many possibilities for the $800,000 they plan to spend at Walter Pierce Park. They speak in reverent tones about the presence of the cemeteries at the park, while carefully making no promises.
Reverent tones aren’t enough.
We want a memorial space, an Ancestors Pavilion. We know that 8,428 names will fit on the existing wall; we’ve done the math. We’ve priced out our proposal. It would be a small fraction of what other projects planned for the park will cost.
At Walter Pierce Park in 2019, the District has a chance to socially repair the physical destruction of the Quaker and African American cemeteries that occurred over the past century. The descendants of the buried deserve a space where their ancestors can be remembered. The descendants’ voices should be heard.