Virginia, Maryland, D.C. repatriate historic African American gravestones

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Historic African American gravestones were removed from a Washington, D.C., cemetery and dumped to control erosion on the Potomac River generations ago.

Gov. Ralph S. Northam of Virginia, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser today joined descendants to begin the process of honoring their family members by returning the gravestones to a proper memorial site.

The story begins in 1859 at Columbian Harmony Cemetery, which stood for a century as Washington’s most prominent burial site for Americans of African descent. In the 1960s, the cemetery was moved to make room for commercial development, which in time would include the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station.

The remains were relocated to a memorial garden in Landover, Maryland. But in a dehumanizing act, most of the grave markers and monuments were sold for scrap or dumped for erosion-control rubble along the Potomac River.

Many of the grave markers were deposited in a two-mile stretch of King George County, Virginia, where Caledon State Park and the home of State Sen. Richard Stuart front the Potomac River. In 2016, as Stuart walked along the river, he discovered the gravestones on the property he had just purchased. He turned to historians to learn about the gravestones and their origin, and then to other state leaders to determine how to return them to a proper memorial site.

“It’s our duty to make sure these headstones are returned to the graves they were intended to mark and honor,” said Northam. “As we reckon with the many impacts of systemic racism, we must tell the full and true story of our shared history, including indignities inflicted on people of color even after death.”

Northam, as part of a major investment in historic justice, proposed funding for the recovery and restoration of the gravestones and the creation of a shoreline memorial. Virginia has approved a total of $4 million for the project.

“We know that the 37,000 people who were laid to rest at Columbian Harmony Cemetery were the men, women, and families who helped build Washington, D.C. into the city we are today,” said Bowser. “They were talented soldiers, civil rights leaders, dressmakers, and so much more—they were moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, friends and neighbors. They made and continue to make our families, our city, and our nation proud, and today we honor their lives.”

“As soon as we learned of the massive undertaking to recover these headstones, we offered the full support of our entire Maryland team,” said Hogan. “We have no greater responsibility as leaders in a democracy than preserving for future generations the importance of clearly differentiating between right and wrong.”

“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,” said Stuart. “But if I were the descendant of the individuals whose stones landed on the river’s shoreline, I would be angry. The dead are supposed to be revered and respected. Today we begin the work of righting this wrong and honoring these Americans.”

Today’s event included the ceremonial transfer of 55 headstones from Virginia to Maryland, beginning the effort to return the headstones to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Md. The headstones will become part of a one-acre memorial garden honoring the more than 37,000 people buried in the original cemetery. Among them were two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglas, Elizabeth Keckley—a confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, Phillip Reid—who helped create the Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol, many Black Union Army veterans, and one of D.C.’s first Black policemen.

Officials from Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia have partnered with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the History, Arts, and Science Action Network (HASAN), a restorative justice nonprofit organization based in Hyattsville, Maryland, for the project.

This fall, crews from the National Guard in Maryland and Virginia will seek to unearth and recover additional headstones along a two-mile stretch of the Potomac near Caledon State Park, where the first ones were salvaged. HASAN has been leading efforts to work with the descendant community and research the personal stories of those buried in the cemetery.

The grave markers that have been rendered illegible from being worn smooth over time and cannot be removed from the water will become part of a living park-like memorial wall with protective shoreline vegetation. Boaters will be able to learn about the site through historic markers that will be placed at Virginia’s Caledon State Park.

“Ensuring these grave markers and the memories of those they recognized are treated with dignity and respect is another victory in our battle for historic justice in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “While we cannot undo the harm caused in the past, we can do our best to tell the stories truthfully, and strive to foster better understanding and a new harmony in the present and future.”

“HASAN is honored to be a critical part of this initiative, and to help elevate and center the voices of the descendants throughout the process,” said HASAN Representative Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz. “We hope that this brings honor and respect to those buried in the cemetery, and to their families.”

“The desecration of the tombstones should never have happened. While we can’t correct that wrong, we can handle them with dignity and respect and try to reunite them with the people they are memorializing,” said director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Clyde Cristman. “The Commonwealth is committed to the historic preservation of these gravestones as well as the protection of the shoreline with the new Harmony Living Shoreline memorial.”


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