Commemorating the African American and Quaker Cemeteries at Walter Pierce Park in Washington, DC
HONORING THE BLACK AND QUAKER CEMETERIES OF WALTER PIERCE PARK, WASHINGTON, DC
DESCENDANTS OF Eli Nugent, John Shorter, the Edmonson family and others who founded Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery dedicated four new National Underground Railroad markers at the Calvert Street entrance to Walter Pierce Park on December 11, 2021. See the FINAL SIGNS here! Watch the NBC4 Washington news report on the dedication here!
FUTURE PLANS: AT THE DESCENDANTS’ REQUEST, THE DC DEPARTMENT OF PARKS & RECREATION IN 2019 AGREED TO CREATE AN ANCESTORS PAVILION FOR WALTER PIERCE PARK. As of December 2021, they haven’t fulfilled their promise. SEE THE DESCENDANTS’ PROPOSAL HERE.
REDISCOVERING THE WALTER PIERCE PARK CEMETERIES
Biological anthropologist Mark Mack of Howard University and students Ike Mesumbe and Miesha Hegwood begin the survey. (Photo by Mary Belcher)
IN THE 1800s, TWO CEMETERIES OCCUPIED SEVEN ACRES OF LANDat today’s Walter C. Pierce Park in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC.The Friends Burying Ground–the city’s only Quaker cemetery–was in use from 1807 to 1890. The much larger African American cemetery was Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery, owned and operated by the Colored Union Benevolent Association from 1870 to 1890.
The cemeteries were almost lost to time after closing in 1890. Parts of the land were sold to the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park. Developers in the 1950s tried to build high-rises on the rest of the site but abandoned their efforts. Neighbors in 1978 persuaded the city to buy the land to create a park.
A headstone is lifted for inspection. (Photo by Mary Belcher)
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 were aware of the park’s history as cemetery land. They were certain that the massive earth-moving project would disturb any graves that might remain. The concerned community was quickly joined by Mark Mack, a renowned Howard University biological anthropologist and laboratory director of the landmark African Burial Ground project in New York.
City officials told the grassroots group that all the graves had been removed from the site decades ago. But the concerned community quickly found documentary evidence that thousands of people had been buried in the cemeteries before they were forced to close in 1890. And there was no evidence that thousands of graves had ever been removed.
After months of debate, city officials relented. 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 privately funded work, the Walter Pierce Park Archaeological Team received city funding to complete its research.
While one part of the team worked in the field, team historians reviewed city death records to find out who was buried in the cemeteries. They documented the names, addresses, causes of death and other biographical information of 8,428 people. Among them were more than 40 African American soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War. Also buried here were men and women who worked to free others from slavery, including key actors in the largest Underground Railroad operation in U.S. history: the 1848 escape on the schooner Pearl.
The archaeologists surveyed the park using only non-invasive means. They didn’t dig because the point of the work was to protect, not disturb, graves. 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 random positioning of many of the finds–including exposed remains and artifacts scattered on hillsides–provided evidence of the cemeteries’ desecration and neglect throughout most of the 20th Century.
Looking forward, the archaeologists, descendants, and volunteers hope to commemorate and permanently protect the graves that remain at Walter Pierce Park. Public awareness is essential to preserving this sacred place. If you would like to be added to the email list for upcoming events, write community liaison Mary Belcher, firstname.lastname@example.org.
GEOPHYSICAL SURVEY DETECTS INTACT GRAVES; CONFIRMS EARLIER ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH
Saying Their Names at Walter Pierce Park is an annual commemorative event. (Photo by Gretchen Roberts Shorter)
A geophysical survey of Walter C. Pierce Community Park in Adams Morgan, Washington, DC, detected at least 35 intact graves from the African American and Quaker cemeteries that once occupied the site. It’s possible that hundreds or thousands more remain some 30 feet below the present-day surface of the park, where they can’t be detected by scientific equipment. There were at least 8,428 burials made in the cemeteries during the 19th Century.
Dr. Jarrod Burks of Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. conducted the survey using ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers, and high-tech topographical analyses of the site’s contours over time. His findings help explain the earlier archaeological findings made by Howard University biological anthropologist Mark Mack during a multi-year, non-invasive survey of the site.
“One of the most important ideas presented in this report is that a large amount of fill [deposited soil] now covers most of the northern two-thirds of the park,” Dr. Burks found. “This fill is likely sitting right on top of the original land surface—i.e., the original surface of the cemetery. If this is the case, possibly hundreds or thousands of human burials remain in the park, entombed beneath up to nine meters [about 30 feet] of fill. In areas where the fill is relatively thin, the geophysical surveys found probable and possible evidence of graves.”