By Helen Bezuneh,
Special to the AFRO
The Black Cemetery Network’s virtual archive of Black cemeteries across the United States comes in the form of a map with an array of location tags scattered across the nation, each pinpoint holding a depth of history that, many say, has been systematically neglected.
The map has registered 118 burial sites to date, with four of them in Washington, D.C., five of them in Maryland, and 13 of them in Virginia. Those interred at many of these cemeteries, however, aren’t alone –– activists have fiercely fought for their preservation.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Tamara Phelps, who works at the University of the District of Columbia and serves as the landscaping chair of the Woodlawn Collaborative Project. The volunteer group, including members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (DST), which work to preserve the Woodlawn Cemetery in Washington.
“Why isn’t this a bigger priority for the city with all these notable African Americans there,” said Phelps.
Woodlawn Cemetery is one of the few remaining historic Black burial sites in the area that still has visible graves. The site opened in 1895 and now holds around 36,000 burial sites on its 22.5 acre property.
“There are more Black historical figures currently in that cemetery than there are in the other existing Black cemeteries in the city, but also in the surrounding area,” said Antoinette White Richardson, member of the project and vice president of the Woodlawn Cemetery Perpetual Care Association and DST member. “Military cemeteries are funded by the government and church cemeteries are funded by the churches. Once you get to private cemeteries, you start running into issues.”
Members of the D.C. Alumnae Chapter of DST got involved in the preservation of the cemetery in 2018 when they discovered that one of their founders, Mary Edna Brown Coleman, was buried there. They soon learned that two founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), Marjorie Hill and Sarah Merriwether Nutter, were also buried at the site.
The Xi Omega Chapter of AKA joined the women of DST in their protection of the sacred grounds, working on tasks such as bringing community awareness to the site, providing landscaping assistance, leading periodic cleanups and launching an oral interview history project.
“It was kind of, we thought, sort of unkept,” said Marjorie Kinard, coordinator of the Woodlawn Collaborative Project and DST member. “We felt like we needed to do something because we have other founders buried at another cemetery and everything is fine with them. We wanted Mary Edna Brown Coleman’s burial site to look as nice as those others did because Deltas, when they come, want to see the founders.”
Those involved in the project welcome the help of others, seeing as the cemetery’s size makes it difficult to maintain financially.
“We know the cemetery is privately owned, so the government cannot do certain things. But at the same time, we would welcome anything the government would be willing to do … because it has been designated as a historic site. If they could assist us with
],” said Kinard, who is a retired educator and member of DST.
The coalition is looking for descendants of those interred at Woodlawn and encourages them to reach out to the project at Woodlawndc.org.
Unlike Woodlawn, Baltimore’s Laurel Cemetery is no longer recognizable as a burial site to the naked eye. The demolished burial ground now lies underneath the Belair-Edison Crossing Shopping Center.
The Laurel Cemetery Memorial Project aims to investigate the history of the site through archaeological and ethnographic means.
Incorporated in 1852, Laurel became a common place of burial for African Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum, including many Black Civil War veterans.
The cemetery began to lose prominence in the early 1900s and became increasingly unkept, leading to its ultimate sale and demolition in 1958.
“The Black community learned about the cemetery being demolished when people saw bulldozers in the cemetery,” said Elgin Klugh, Ph.D., an anthropologist at Coppin State University and chair of the project. “Imagine that. Going to visit your grandparent’s grave and they’re bulldozing the cemetery. So the NAACP got behind the case, but … they were not successful in stopping the demolition of the cemetery.”
Klugh and Ronald Castanzo, an archaeologist at the University of Baltimore and member of the project’s task force, first started the archaeological project at the site in 2014 to teach their students about archaeological methods. When they found bits of coffins and bones beneath the mall’s parking lot and surrounding unpaved areas, they immediately informed the State and began a more thorough investigation into the site.
“It’s kinda odd to see an archeological dig going on right there , so some people came and asked us what we were doing,” said Klugh. “But we didn’t meet anyone while we were out there … who knew anything about the history.”
Following phase one, the archaeological excavation of the site, Klugh and Castanzo decided to initiate phase two, which involves ethnographic and historical research.
Phase two is still in process today, involving faculty and students from varying universities in the area. Volunteers from the Agnes Kane Callum Baltimore Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society have also played an important role in the project, developing research on interred individuals and identifying their descendants.
“To me, one of the main points of significance is making the landscape reflect the history,” said Klugh. “We have a situation where there are significant elements of history, Black history in particular, that are just forgotten and unknown and not represented on the landscape … We have documented over 20,000 graves at the Laurel Cemetery through death certificates and we anticipate that we may come close to doubling that number … each one of those burials, those lives, tell a story.”
The group aims to establish a historical marker at the site to properly acknowledge its history.
Located in Georgetown, the Mount Zion and Female Union Band Society cemeteries are another site that’s still visibly recognizable as a burial ground, with the cemeteries established by the Montgomery Street Methodist Church in 1808.
The Black Georgetown Foundation aims to educate people about the site’s history and preserve the cemeteries, which sit alongside one another.
“It’s not just a cemetery, it’s a sacred space,” said Lisa Fager, who has served as the executive director of the foundation since 2019.
“History matters and cemeteries don’t lie, they make you tell the truth,” she told the AFRO. “You walk into a cemetery and you see a name, but what’s really important is the dash. What happened in between that time, what was their life about?”
The National Park Service has included Mount Zion in a preliminary list of sites linked with the Underground Railroad, with sources indicating that the cemetery’s brick burial vault served as a hiding place for runaway slaves.
In 1842, the Female Union Band Society, a mutual aid society of free African-American and Native American women, bought the western portion of the cemetery.
Interments at Mount Zion began to dwindle in 1849 when several white burials at the site were moved to Oak Hill Cemetery, a site that only allowed white burials.
Though the last recorded burials at either cemetery took place in 1950, the Black Georgetown Foundation is dedicated to preventing the site’s decline.
“Right now, we’re fighting for the land. Erosion is a real problem,” said Fager. “The city has budgeted some money to rectify it, and this is a fight we’ve been fighting since 1970. The water is relegated towards the cemetery. There’s no intake of water, there’s no open sewer. It’s purposeful, it was set up that way. The white cemetery, the Oak Hill Cemetery, has an underwater engineering system to avoid any of that. We need to save the cemetery and the first thing is erosion.”
Mount Pleasant Plains Cemetery, owned and operated by the Colored Union Benevolent Association from 1870 to 1890, is located underneath today’s Walter Pierce Park in D.C. next to the Friends Burying Ground, a Quaker cemetery.
“In some ways, we’re the sister cemetery to the Mount Zion cemetery, we’re upstream from them,” said Mary Belcher, a neighborhood activist working to preserve the cemetery.
Citizens and Howard University anthropologists initiated efforts to protect the unmarked cemeteries in 2005 in response to the city’s plan to build large terraces in the park, which they worried may destroy the graves.
“A handful of us stepped in and said, ‘hey, wait, we know a little about the history of this place,’” said Belcher.
Though city officials informed the group that no graves remained at the site, the activists eventually found conflicting evidence –– the skeletal remains of at least nine individuals, headstones and evidence indicating the desecration and neglect of the cemeteries.
Belcher said that None of the city officials could tell them how many people were buried at the cemetery in the first place. The first question was “ ‘how many people were buried in the cemetery?’” said Belcher. “It turned out, instead of it being just a little rural cemetery with a few hundred people, there were probably upwards of 8,000 or 9,000 people buried there.”
The group reviewed city death records to discover the identities of those buried in the cemeteries, many of whom were African American soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War, as well as individuals involved in the 1848 escape on the schooner Pearl, the largest known Underground Railroad escape in U.S. history.
The National Park Service named the cemetery a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site in 2015.
“Every time anything gets done or built or considered at Walter Pierce Park, it now requires historic preservation review with the understanding that graves might be disturbed,” said Belcher. “Now the Department of Parks and Recreation has agreed to create a commemorative site that the descendants proposed several years ago.”