Friday, November 13, 2020

Cemetery Stones Missing for Decades Have Been Found


It all started with a walk. Four years ago, Virginia senator Richard Stuart and his wife Lisa were out for a stroll along the Potomac River when he noticed something concerning: a headstone lying along the bank.


The Stuarts found another, and then another until the senator realized the piece of land he had just purchased had gravestones strewn across it. It didn’t take long for historians to track down where the stones had come from – Columbian Harmony Cemetery, an African American burial ground upriver in Washington, D.C.


The cemetery was opened in 1859 after the smaller Harmoneon Cemetery, founded in 1828 as the region’s first burial society for free Blacks, had reached capacity. Columbian Harmony Cemetery encompassed 17 acres and soon purchased 18 more. From 1892 - 1919, this was the most utilized black cemetery in Washington. In fact, in 1885, one-third of D.C’s African American residents were buried here, and by the turnoff the century more than 10,000 graves were located in the cemetery.


The Columbian Harmony Society, which owned the cemetery, decided to purchase 45 acres near Landover, Maryland in 1929. There were no grave relocations, only new burials at the new cemetery. 

Then in 1957, real estate investor/developer, Louis N. Bell made an offer to purchase Columbian Harmony Cemetery and meld it into his 107-acre Forest Lawn Cemetery. 


After much negotiations and a name change to the National Harmony Memorial Park, the relocation of around 37,000 African American graves began in May 1960. The relatives of those buried at Columbian Harmony were contacted for permission to exhume and move their loved one. It took more than 100 workers six months to exhume, place remains in new coffins and move them to Forest Lawn for reburial.


But the relocation agreement did not include moving headstones, monuments
or memorials. Those relocated were buried without identification. The existing grave memorials were removed and sold as scrap. For the next half-century, no one would know what became of the original markers.

In 1967, Bell sold the old cemetery grounds to the city for development. It wasn’t until 1976, when a metro station was being built on the former cemetery site that workers unearthed five coffins and numerous remains. 


More remains were discovered in 1979 when a parking lot was being constructed; not all of the bodies had been exhumed in the cemetery’s move in 1960. Thanks to Virginia historians, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Senator Stuart, a nonprofit group is working to place these rediscovered markers on the appropriate graves at Harmony Memorial Park. Markers that cannot be retrieved will become part of a memorial located along the Potomac River.


Those buried here include:

• Elizabeth Keckly (1818-1907), former slave, and seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln 


• James Wormley (1819–1884), hotel owner and the only African American present when President Lincoln died


Lucy Addison (1861–1937), educator and principal


• John F. Cook Jr. (1833-1910), a well-known businessman from one of DC's most wealthy black families. 


Mary Ann Shadd (1823–1893), anti-slavery activist, and the first black woman publisher in North America 

• And more than 400 of Black Civil War veterans who served in the Union Army including two Medal of Honor recipients


It should be remembered that Columbine Harmony Cemetery was not the only African American cemetery to be relocated during the 20th century. At least five more large Black graveyards were eliminated - all in the name of development.

~ Joy


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