WORKING AT WALTER PIERCE: GRASSROOTS COLLABORATION

AN ANCESTORS PAVILION FOR WALTER PIERCE PARK: The DC Department of Parks and Recreation in fall 2019 will be making improvements to Walter Pierce Park in Washington, DC, the site of two historic African American and Quaker cemeteries. Descendants and volunteers have proposed that the city create an “ANCESTORS PAVILION” to memorialize the 8,428 people buried at the site. Our discussions are ongoing. YOU CAN SEE THE DESCENDANTS’ PROPOSED PLAN HERE. To read The Washington Post opinion piece (May 26, 2019) on the Ancestors Pavilion, go to https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/local-opinions/dc-has-a-chance-to-repair-the-destruction-of-quaker-and-african-american-cemeteries/2019/05/24/c175872c-7730-11e9-b3f5-5673edf2d127_story.html

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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 LAND that included today’s Walter C. Pierce Community 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 known as Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery, was owned and operated by the Colored Union Benevolent Association from 1870 to 1890.

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

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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 whose remains were buried there. 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 escape attempt in U.S. history.

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, maryjbelcher@comcast.net.

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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, has detected at least 35 graves from the African American and Quaker cemeteries that once occupied the site. It’s possible that hundreds or thousands more graves are still intact 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.”

The Walter Pierce Park Archaeology and Commemoration Project is grateful to Dr. Burks and DC City Archaeologist Dr. Ruth Trocolli for permitting us to publish and share 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.

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QUICK CLICKS TO OUR PROJECT REPORTS:

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A sacred cemetery object. 

11 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!

  8. My ancestor, Jonathan Shoemaker, donated the first 1/4 acre as a “Friends” resting grounds. Strauser, Shoemaker, Walton. My family has documented our history since the first voyage. Both sides of my genetic contibutions.

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