Working at Walter Pierce: Grassroots Collaboration

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Mark Mack, Ike Mesumbe and Miesha Hegwood begin the survey of Walter Pierce Park in 2006.

ON SATURDAY, MAY 27, 2017, AT 11 A.M., DESCENDANTS AND FRIENDS OF THE WALTER PIERCE PARK CEMETERIES GATHERED to say the names and tell the stories of the 8,500 people who are buried at the park. The light rain cooled us for a half-hour as we read the names; it stopped in time for refreshments. We were honored to host Pastor Segun Adebayo and friends from Macedonia Baptist Church in Bethesda, who are working to save their own Ancestral Burial Ground from developers on River Road. African American Civil War Memorial Founder Frank Smith and Patricia Tyson of FREED (Female Re-Enactors of Distinction) were on hand. Descendant T.J. Thomas told us that her ancestor, Eli Gales of the U.S. Navy, had some 600 descendants!  Rev. Joanne Braxton, descendant and African and Spiritual Studies scholar, expressed thanks for “having a place to come to” to honor the Ancestors. Thanks to all who joined us!  

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QUICK CLICKS TO PROJECT REPORTS: The National Park Service in 2015 named Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery at Walter Pierce Park a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site; click to read the UNDERGROUND RAILROAD NOMINATION. For the history and archaeology of the site, read our Report to the Public on the Archaeological Investigation of Walter C. Pierce Park and Vicinity 2005-2012 by Mark Mack and Mary Belcher. FIND YOUR ANCESTORS on our Walter Pierce Park Burials Database to see the names of the 8,428 people buried in the 19th Century cemeteries. 

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REDISCOVERING THE CEMETERIES

IN THE 19TH CENTURY, TWO CEMETERIES OCCUPIED SEVEN ACRES OF LAND that today is Walter C. Pierce Community Park, located in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC. 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 the 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 cemetery object.

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10 responses to “Working at Walter Pierce: Grassroots Collaboration

  1. Will be checking to see if my great grand mother Emily Edmonson, from the Book Fugitives of the PEARL by John L Paynter is bury their.

  2. Hi Ben: Emily isn’t buried here. But her mother Amelia (Millie) Edmondson is, as well as 23 other members of the extended Edmonson family. I am grateful to hear from you. Other Edmonson descendants are involved in our effort to commemorate the cemeteries at Walter Pierce Park — Mary Belcher

  3. Hi Mary — Are there any plans to have a permanent historic marker? I vaguely recall a marker down on the bike path near the creek, but didn’t see it yesterday when I pedaled by. I did see the bulletin board signs, which have a good deal of useful info (I’m sure you did that!) Best, Steve

  4. Hi Steve: The sign that was on Zoo grounds has been gone for some time. We are gearing up to permanently memorialize the site and are anxious to include all ideas; the descendants will lead the way. Thanks! Mary

  5. I was so happy to be able to participate. Speaking the names of the ancestors into the universe honors their existence however brief and the important contributions they made to building this nation.

  6. Hi, Mary,

    I see my dad Ben Berry has been in touch with you. My dad and I plan to visit DC July 5. We’re descendants of Emily Edmonson and want to visit sites related to the Edmonsons. Is there a marker in the park that mentions the cemetery, might you know where Emily is buried, or might you have another suggestion of a site to visit? Thanks, Linda

  7. Hi Linda: There are no markers in the park honoring the cemetery, although we want to have a permanent marker there honoring this important, sacred space. The Edmonson family was very much involved in the cemetery’s creation, and there were at least 23 members of your extended family buried there. We have no map of which graves are where. Some Edmonson Family graves were moved to Harmony Cemetery in DC, which no longer exists, and the graves were then moved to Harmony Cemetery near Landover, Maryland. I don’t know if they are marked out there in Landover. Two sites you might want to visit across the river from DC is in Alexandria where there’s a beautiful stone sculpture of Emily and Mary Jane Edmonson at 1701 Duke Street, near the house where they were held by slave traders; there’s also a place just a few blocks south called the Freedom House Museum in the 1300 block of Duke Street, which is the site of a former slave jail. If you would like me to walk you through the Walter Pierce Park site, I would be happy to do so–just drop me an email at maryjbelcher@comcast.net, and we can plan a time. Thanks so much!

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