Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,380

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,380

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These are some of the graves at Mount Zion Cemetery and Female Union Band Cemetery, historically Black cemeteries in Washington, D.C. This was a special request by someone who funded the trip and, as always, I am very happy to go see whoever you want if you are willing to put up the expenses for it.

I don’t have any good way to tell any meaningful stories about any of the individuals here. What you can see is that a few of the stones are still standing but most aren’t. The people taking care of these cemeteries, which really is one cemetery with different names for each side, have piled most of the stones in the middle, probably to protect them from people walking on them, though that’s an assumption. These cemeteries were for the Black community in Georgetown, long one of Washington’s wealthiest districts. More on the people taking care of these cemeteries in a minute, but a visit here is a great way to get into how segregation and discrimination continues beyond the grave. This is right next to Oak Hill Cemetery, one of the city’s most august cemeteries, holding the city’s elite, including Ben Bradlee, who we have covered recently. It’s hard for me to imagine a more visual way to tell about Georgetown’s inequality than to compare Bradlee’s monstrosity to these graves. This is a common story we have seen throughout this series, including when I was in Richmond visiting the graves of people ranging from Maggie Walker to Arthur Ashe and was horrified at the state of the cemeteries. This stuff takes money, time, and volunteers. You know what poor people don’t have? Money, time, and the ability to volunteer. You know what rich white people have? Money, time, and the ability to volunteer.

Well, the Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society does a heck of a good job of working with this site for a bunch of people without a lot of resources. There’s a URL you can scan in the cemetery to get some information while you are there. They have a good website explaining a lot of this. There’s a lot of detail in here. The cemeteries go back to 1808, when Ebenezer Eliason paid $500 for it to bury both whites and their slaves. This was part of a Methodist church that actually accepted both races as members, even though it was segregated inside the church. Still, this was quite unusual. I’m not really sure how many whites were ever buried there, but there were burials of Black Georgetown residents pretty early. Oak Hill opened in 1849 and there’s no question that after that there were basically no white burials at Mount Zion. In addition, most of the whites already buried there were moved to the new cemetery.

The Female Union Band Society was a group of both free Black and Native women in the area. It was a sort of fraternal organization that provided what most of these existed for at the time–burial insurance. It bought the land next to this cemetery in 1842 and guaranteed you a respectable burial if you paid into it. These cemeteries were already falling apart by the late nineteenth century. Who had the money to take care of it in the Gilded Age Black community in DC? It was however a popular place on Decoration Day. The federal government bought a piece of the cemeteries in 1931 to build the Rock Creek Parkway. The last burial was in 1950 and the DC government barred future burials in 1953, concerned about sanitation, which is the point of burial in the first place. The Mount Zion Church bought the Female Union Band side in 1960. There was a bunch of complicated legal stuff around this though. There were claimants to the Female Union people that showed up later. There was good chance all these people were going to be disinterred and moved somewhere else so the land could be developed for rich people’s housing. But the local Black community rallied and in 1964, began the process of preserving the site and fighting the disinternments. They won this battle in 1975 and the cemetery was preserved. Since then, local volunteers have slowly built up their ability to take care of it, though the current group did not start until 2006 and there have been continued legal battles over ownership of the property. They definitely need more volunteers, so if you are in DC and interested in these things, contact them!

The burial vault is interesting because there is a strong chance that it was used as a hiding place on the Underground Railroad. The National Park Service is presently investigating this and if true, it would be able to provide greater resources to the whole project.

The last thing I will say here is that I am very open to suggestions if you want to be a patron of this series. An individual contacted me, we talked about expenses, and agreed that $300 would be an appropriate amount for me to visit DC and do this. And as requested, I have. The donations for this series 100% go to the travel expenses. Of course in truth it did cost more than $300 to go to DC, but between that and the smaller donations that aren’t dedicated to anything in particular, I was able to do it, plus go to Rock Creek again and a couple of other places, such as that Hugh Jones grave on Maryland’s eastern shore I covered a few days back. So…let me know if you’d like me to do something for you here! Am happy to talk about it at the very least! Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

…….Meanwhile, this story came out last night:

They are all gone. The laminated birthday cards. The plastic toy piano. The doll with the blue bow on her head.

Strangers have carried toys into one of the oldest Black cemeteries in the nation’s capital and placed them near the grave marker of a girl who lived long ago and not long enough. They brought them for Nannie, and for years, to the amazement of people who regularly visit the cemetery, many of those gifts remained undisturbed.

The weather didn’t destroy them. Animals didn’t carry them off. Visitors didn’t steal them.

Then came Tuesday. On that day, as Lisa Fager tells it, when she went to show a group of George Washington University students Nannie’s marker, she found that someone had set the site on fire. Instead of toys and cards, she saw melted plastic and blackened stone.

The moment she realized what happened, she screamed. Then, she cried. Hours later, she was still trying to process what she saw.

“It’s a child’s grave,” she told me. “Who would do that?”

Fager is the executive director of the Black Georgetown Foundation, which has been working to restore two adjoining historic Black cemeteries — the Mount Zion and Female Union Band Society cemeteries — and fill in details about the lives of the people who are buried there.

Fager first told me about Nannie two years ago, and I shared with you how her grave marker had pulled at strangers and left them with questions: Who was she? Had she lived free or enslaved? Who was leaving the laminated cards and vintage toys that appeared at the site around her birthday?

Even during the most uncertain stretch of the pandemic, when people were isolating, someone made the effort to leave a card that read “Happy Birthday, Nannie!”

“There is a power to Nannie’s story, even with the unknowns, or maybe even more so because of them,” I wrote at the time. “She is drawing people to a historic Black cemetery and making them consider what life in Georgetown might have looked like for a Black girl in the 1850s. She is making strangers think about human connections — then and now.”

So, uh, yeah, discrimination absolutely continues past death in this sick country.

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