MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week, our show is all about haunted D.C. And while the place we'll visit next isn't necessarily haunted by ghouls, ghosts or other specters, some might say this historic spot in Washington is haunted by something else, neglect. We'll find out more on a new series, "The Location."
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Where Kim Bender, history buff and author of the blog "The Location" brings us the often hidden stories behind various sites around town. And today, she takes us to a location -- all right. So, Kim Bender, what -- where are we right now?
MS. KIM BENDER
We are on the corner of 27th and Q in Georgetown.
Where nearly 200 years of history are hiding. Many of them -- and we are going to cross the street and head over to...
The Mt. Zion Cemetery, as it's known today.
Below the ground.
It is a wide swath of park-looking land and there are headstones, not everywhere anymore.
So this patch of grass here used to be covered with headstones?
Probably, yes. We're not quite sure how many bodies buried underneath, but I've heard different numbers. Most of them are around 4,000 to 5,000. And I actually have an old map here. A study was done in the '70s to try to figure out as many names as possible of who had been buried here. Because over the years, headstones were stolen, some sink into the ground, slaves had been buried here and they would've been buried with wooden headstones that would have disintegrated.
People use sandstone that would've -- the names would've been washed away. And I don't think anyone knows exactly when this land started to be a cemetery. It was originally the old Episcopal burying ground. And in 1809, the Montgomery Street Church purchased the land for its cemetery, that church is now the Dunbar and United Methodist Church. And I think that's where the story gets interesting. That congregation was 50 percent white, 50 percent black, both slaves and free black people.
And I really like this quote "The old Methodist burying ground has the distinction of being a biracial cemetery of a biracial congregation when segregation was the social pattern." And that's Pauline Gaskins. She was a historian who did a lot of work studying the cemetery. So for a time, the Montgomery Street Church still had the cemetery. In 1842, a cooperative benevolent society of free black women formed called The Female Union Band Society, they purchased half of the property. They pledged to take care of each other in sickness and death so the cemetery was part of that pledge. And a few years after that, Oak Hill Cemetery was formed which we can see...
That's the cemetery through the fence there?
Yeah. And that's sort of when this became more of a black community, cemetery. White families who had people buried here disinterred the bodies. The half that was not the Female Union Band became disused and it sort of fell into disrepair.
Until about 1879 when Mt. Zion purchased the other half of the cemetery and started taking care of that. And that sort of became the heyday of the cemetery, if you will, from the late 1800s until the early 1900s. It was the center of the black community of Georgetown and not everybody knows or remembers that Georgetown had a very high population of black citizens for a lot of its history. And so this was part of the center of that community.
So nowadays, I mean, to be honest, it's not looking so healthy.
Well, the history kept going. In 1950, the last person that we know of was buried here. A few years later, the city forbade burials here. They said it wasn't up to code. It was covered in weeds and brambles and nobody was taking care of it. The Female Union Band Society had disbanded in the '50s. In 1964, some of their heirs got together and applied to the court to be allowed to disinter the bodies and to sell the land to build an apartment building. The court allowed it at the time in the early '60s and then over the next 10 years, there was a bit of back and forth.
And in 1974, a federal judge reversed that decision and said, you know, this is a monument to the black community. This is an important historic site and this is something that needs to be preserved. He was backed by preservationists, historians, community people. And the group that really lead the fight was called the Afro-American Bicentennial Commission. And for the next 20, 30 years, they were the ones in charge of taking care of the cemetery. One man, Vincent deForest, was really the key person.
He had students from local schools helping him clear the weeds and the overgrowth and at some point, the students weren't allowed to help him anymore because of liability issues. And, you know, there's just not been enough -- we're in this hidden, tiny part of Georgetown, tucked away and I think the problem also is that the Mt. Zion Church, a lot of its congregation -- I think you've done a story on this in the past. A lot of its congregation doesn't live in Georgetown anymore.
They live all around the outskirts of the city and in the suburbs. And they come in for services, but this isn't their community on the ground anymore. So there's a lack of help, I think. But in my opinion, this is actually one of the most important local D.C. sites. It has history of the black community in a very, very important way and it has history for the white community in an important way. There's so many things in the city that are national. Some places are really important for the local history and character of the District.
And this would be one of them.
This would be one of them.
Well, Kim Bender, thank you so much for taking the time to share this historic local place with us today.
Thank you for having me and letting me show you a place that I think not everybody understands and appreciates in Washington, D.C.
Kim Bender is author of the blog "The Location." To read Kim's essay on Mt. Zion Cemetery and to see photographs of how the cemetery looks now a days, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.