GEOPHYSICAL SURVEY FINDS GRAVES AT WALTER PIERCE PARK
An extensive geophysical survey of Walter C. Pierce Community Park in Adams Morgan, Washington, DC, has detected at least 35 graves from the African American and Quaker cemeteries that occupied the site until 1890. It is likely also that hundreds–and possibly thousands–of graves are still intact some 30 feet below the present-day surface of the park, where they are undetectable by scientific equipment.
Dr. Jarrod Burks of Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. conducted the survey, which included ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers, and high-tech topographical analyses. His findings are made public for the first time here.
“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 reported. “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.”
Dr. Burks’ report confirms and helps explain the findings of Howard University Professor Mark Mack’s archaeological survey of Walter Pierce Park, which was completed in 2012 (see below for a link to the archaeological report). Historical records document at least 8,428 burials in the African American cemetery between 1870 and 1890. An unknown number of burials took place in the much smaller Friends (Quakers) Burying Ground, in operation from 1807 until 1890. Since the forced closure of both cemeteries in 1890 due to economic-development pressures, the site underwent several periods of disruption: some graves were removed in the 1940s and 1950s to clear the way for several apartment buildings that were never built; in the early 1980s, other graves were disturbed during construction of the park.
The Walter Pierce Park Archaeology and Commemoration Project is grateful to Dr. Burks and to DC City Archaeologist Ruth Trocolli for permitting us to publish the Results of Geophysical Surveys in Walter C. Pierce Community Park, Washington, D.C.: A Geophysical Search for Evidence of Graves Related to the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. We are very grateful for the knowledge brought to light by the scientific surveys, which will help descendants and concerned citizens determine how best to protect the cemeteries.
QUICK CLICKS TO PROJECT REPORTS:
- 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.
- 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 Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery at Walter Pierce Park Underground Railroad Nomination.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.