The endangered Mount Zion Cemetery

20 Oct

*On October 28, 2011, this story was featured on the radio version of the location, which airs monthly on WAMU 88.5’s Metro Connection.  Listen to the segment here.  This post was first published in February 2011.

After a recent depressing visit to the Mount Zion Cemetery at 27th and Q in Georgetown, I felt compelled to nominate it to DCPL’s Most Endangered Places list. To explain why, here’s what I said on my nomination form and the pictures I took of the site:

I would like to nominate the Mt. Zion Cemetery for DCPL’s Most Endangered Places list.  The site is significant to the history of Georgetown and D.C., and specifically the role of African-Americans and women in the area’s economic and cultural development.  Its current state of serious disrepair and neglect is appalling; being included on the Most Endangered Places list would hopefully increase the site’s visibility and create a movement to repair and better care for this important place.

“The Mount Zion Cemetery is a physical reminder of African American life and the evolving free black culture in the District of Columbia from the earliest days of the city to the present.  The land for the Old Methodist Episcopal Burying Ground was purchased in 1808 by the Dumbarton Street Methodist Episcopal Church. The membership of the Dumbarton Street M.E. Church was fifty percent black, consisting of both free blacks and slaves. At the time, Georgetown was about thirty percent African American. In 1816 the black members of the Dumbarton Street M.E. Church formed the Mount Zion Methodist Church. Eventually the Mount Zion Methodist Church took over the cemetery in 1879. The Female Union Band Society was a cooperative benevolent society of free black women whose members were pledged to assist one another in sickness and in death. The society was created in 1842 and purchased the land for the burial ground that year. Mt. Zion Cemetery illustrates the significant contribution of African Americans to the development of Georgetown and the work of an early benevolent society organized by black women for their own benefit. The cemetery fell into neglect and disrepair until 1976 when volunteer workers under the direction of the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation cleared away underbrush, trash, and ground cover.” (NPS, http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/dc10.htm)  A vault located on the property was probably a stop on the Underground Railroad.

More recently, the cemetery has returned to its previous state of disrepair and neglect.  Headstones appear to have been moved and some are heaped in piles.  If the stones have not toppled over altogether, they are slanted and in danger of doing so.  Many are cracked and damaged.  Some portions of the site are overgrown with weeds and vines.  Stones that appear in recent pictures of the Cemetery have somehow disappeared, as has the sign for the site.  In its current state, it is difficult to even identify the site as a cemetery, and even more difficult to understand its historic significance.

The cemetery needs significant repair, as well as more consistent attention and oversight.  A fence and a permanent plaque would help visitors identify and understand the site’s historic relevance.  Repair of the headstones, and cleaning of the grounds would restore the site to a respectful and meaningful space. Cataloging of the stones would help descendants connect to the lives of their forebears.  A custodian who could regularly supervise the property would be necessary to keep it from falling back into disrepair.  My hope is that a listing on DCPL’s Most Endangered Places list would bring the Mt. Zion Cemetery the attention it needs to raise the money and awareness to accomplish these changes.

Check out the slideshow of what I recently saw during my visit to the cemetery:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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12 Responses to “The endangered Mount Zion Cemetery”

  1. Neville Waters January 16, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    I would like to connect with Kim Bender as myself along with our members of the cemetery’s board of trustees would like to connect with her. Unfortunately, the cemetery has been involved in some extended litigation. I would appreciate your response. Thanks for your concern. We are hopeful that we may be able to engage your support.

    • Cosby January 17, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

      Extended litigation? Uh oh. How can concerned members of the community like myself help? I can be contacted at cosbyhunt@hotmail.com

  2. Sydney Buffalow November 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm #

    I heard your segment on WAMU. I am a DC native and histroy buff! Growing up I was constantly reminded by my father of the black churches of Gerogetown. I would love to get more information and volunteer time toward your efforts. Please email me and continue your hard work!

    • The Location November 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

      Thanks Sydney!

      I will be in touch with more information about ways to help.

  3. Cosby Hunt November 5, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    I’m a long-time DC school teacher and Mt. Zion enthusiast. I applaud your efforts and hope to see you at the screening of the youth-made documentary about Mt. Zion Cemetery on November 5th at the African American Civil War Museum:

    http://hcwdc.blogspot.com/2011/10/students-in-cemeteries-hands-on-history.html

    What has become of your nomination of the cemetery to the DCPL?

    I organized student-led walking tours of the cemetery when I taught at Bell Multicultural HS a few years ago. I’d love to talk to you sometime about what else we might do to help the cemetery.

    • The Location November 10, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

      Thank you! I am sorry to have missed the documentary – is it available to view anywhere else?

      I have tried to get some information from DCPL about the nomination but have not heard anything back. I will post an update when I know more.

      Also, I will be letting Mt. Zion church about all of the interest, and will be in touch about ways to help.

      • Cosby November 10, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

        I misspoke (well, mis-typed)! The student-made documentary about Mt. Zion is happening THIS Saturday (11/12) at 5pm at the African-American Civil War Museum. Hope to see you there. Also, have you spoken with the church historian, Carter Bowman? He’s another of the city’s treasures.

  4. MK Kassman October 28, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    Heard the metro connection radio piece–excellent-informative-complete-well done!

  5. The Location October 27, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    It is in a pretty bad state! I’m also sharing the story about the cemetery on WAMU’s Metro Connection tomorrow, which I hope will bring more attention to the site.

    Also, since I originally wrote this nomination, I have learned that a significant study was conducted during the late 70’s which used numerous sources (including personal recollections) to create a comprehensive list of those buried at the site. It’s a wonderful piece of work. And – on my visit to the cemetery last week, I noticed that the sign was up.

  6. Jerry A. McCoy October 27, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

    Thank you for nominating this cemetery. Its condition has angered me for 30 years…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Washington DC Historical Studies « Bohemian Yankee in the Capital - October 20, 2012

    [...] can engage youngsters and help them build the skills of researching and analytical thinking. The Mount Zion Cemetery is listed as one of the most endangered in the [...]

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