Working at Walter Pierce: Grassroots Collaboration

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Mark Mack, Ike Mesumbe and Miesha Hegwood begin the survey of Walter Pierce Park.

Read the REPORT TO THE PUBLIC ON THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATION OF  WALTER C. PIERCE PARK AND VICINITY2005-2012, by Mark Mack and Mary Belcher.  CLICK HERE FOR THE PUBLIC_REPORT,  (Please allow a few minutes to load.) 

FIND YOUR ANCESTORS!  See the names and other biographical data of more than 8,000 people whose remains were buried in the Walter Pierce Park cemeteries in the 19th Century.  CLICK HERE FOR THE Walter_Pierce_Park_Burials_Database. (Please allow a few minutes to load.)

LATEST DISCOVERIES:  Meet Dabney Walker, the “Scout of the Rappahannock” and his wife Lucy Ann, who worked covertly to help win the Civil War!  See the “Soldiers and Sailors” page.

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IN THE 19TH CENTURY, TWO CEMETERIES occupied seven acres of land that today is the site of Walter C. Pierce Community Park, in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  The cemeteries were the Friends Burying Ground–the city’s only Quaker cemetery–in operation from 1807 to 1890, and a much larger African American cemetery known as Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery, in operation from 1870 to 1890.

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Howard students tackle rugged terrain.

The cemeteries were almost lost to time.  Portions of the seven acres were sold off and the graves forgotten as the city grew around them.   Developers in the 1950s  ravaged the land to build several large high-rises, but eventually they abandoned their efforts.  In the 1970s, neighbors in need of green space successfully persuaded the city to buy the vacant land.  In 1982, a city park was born.

In 2005, concerned citizens and Howard University anthropologists joined forces to protect the unmarked cemeteries at Walter Pierce Park.  Their collaboration began in response to a city plan to construct large terraces in the park.  Neighbors who were aware of the park’s history as cemetery land were certain that the massive earth-moving project would disturb any graves that might remain.  The concerned community was fortunate to enlist Mark Mack, a biological anthropologist at nearby Howard University and laboratory director of the landmark African Burial Ground project in New York.

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The insignia of the Colored Union Benevolent Association

After months of debate, city officials relented, agreeing to delay and downsize their construction plans.   They allowed Professor Mack and a team of Howard U. students and independent historians to survey the park.  Grants to pay the students and buy supplies were obtained through a nonprofit neighborhood group, the Kalorama Citizens Association.  After three years of work in the park, the Walter Pierce Park Archaeological Team received city funding for further exploration, with the appropriation administered by the nonprofit Washington Parks & People.

As part of their work, Team historians reviewed city death records to document the names, addresses, causes of death and other biographical information of 8,428 people whose remains were buried in the Walter Pierce cemeteries.

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A headstone is lifted for inspection.

In the field, the Archaeological Team surveyed the park using only non-invasive means.  They did not dig because the purpose of the work was to protect, not disturb, graves.  The Team visually inspected every area of the park in 10-meter-by-10-meter sections.

They found ample evidence of the cemeteries.  The exposed skeletal remains of at least nine individuals were found.  Coffin hardware, headstones, and grave offerings were found.  The chock-a-block nature of some of the finds–including exposed remains and artifacts scattered on hillsides–provided evidence of the cemeteries’ desecration and neglect.

The Walter Pierce Park Archaeology Project honors the past and looks toward the future.  We look forward to finding ways to protect what is left of the cemeteries at Walter Pierce Park.  We look forward to finding ways to commemorate those whose remains were laid to rest here, so that an estimated million descendants might find their ancestors at Walter Pierce Park.

A sacred object.

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