by BOTWC Staff
In 1859 The Columbian Harmony Cemetery was created, becoming a popular burial site for Black people in Washington, D.C. During the 1960s, the cemetery was moved to give space for development, including the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro Station. The remains of those interred there were then taken to National Harmony Memorial Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Unfortunately, the gravestones never made it there, being either sold or given away.
“This young lady nicely told me where my ancestors were located in the graveyard, but she also told me that there were no headstones,” Violetta Sharps-Jones, one of the descendents of someone buried at National Harmony Memorial, said.
Dozens of gravemarkers ended up on a 2 mile stretch of the river in King George County where they had been being used as erosion control along the Virginia shoreline of the Potomac River. In 2016, when Virginia Sen. Richard Stuart purchased property in the area, he and his wife discovered the gravestones while taking a walk.
“She looked at me and she said, ‘Is that?…’ and I finished the sentence, ‘a headstone.’ And we saw another one. And we saw another one. And we saw another one. I felt like somebody had punched me in the stomach and that is the best way I can describe it,” Stuart recalled.
With the help of local historians and the History, Arts, and Science Action Network – a restorative justice nonprofit organization based in Hyattsville, Maryland – Stuart was able to learn about the origin stories of the gravestones. He begin working with state officials and descendants to return them to a fitting memorial site.
Recently, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser all attended a ceremony held in Caledon State Park in King George to commemorate the transfer of the first 55 headstones from Virginia to Maryland. The grave markers will become a part of a memorial garden at National Harmony Memorial, honoring the 37,000 ancestors originally buried at The Columbian Harmony Cemetery.
“It’s a disgusting and heartbreaking chapter in our history,” Gov. Hogan said.
“It’s really important for all of us to acknowledge past wrongs,” Gov. Northam added.
Bowser echoed those sentiments, “We are committed to righting that wrong.”
There were a number of affluent Black people buried at Columbian Harmony including Elizabeth Keckly, a former enslaved person turned seamstress who became a trusted confidants of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln; Osborne Perry Anderson, the sole Black survivor of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Philip Reid, a foundry worker who assisted with the building of the Statue of Freedom at the U.S. Capitol, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first Black woman newspaper publisher and editor who recently had a Delaware post office renamed in her honor.
One of the descendants, Patricia Howard-Chittams, was able to touch her relative’s headstone for the first time after the transfer. She spoke about the significance of the moment.
“I don’t get angry, I don’t get mad, you know, because she was here. I’m the sum of her existence, which makes it even better,” Howard-Chittams said.
Virginia has approved $4 million towards recovery and restoration of the gravestones and the creation of a shoreline memorial. During the fall, National Guard members from Maryland and Virginia will work together to recover more headstones in the area.
Peace, light, and progress to the spirit of the ancestors.