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

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.

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QUICK CLICKS TO PROJECT REPORTS:

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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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