September 22, 2021

HOPE Crew Explores Black Land Lost in DC

In partnership with the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and with the support of Capital One, students from University of District of Columbia (UDC) and Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) participated in a 2-week HOPE (Hands on Preservation Experience) Crew project exploring Black history, D.C. historic landscapes, and historic preservation.

In spring 2021, UDC students participated in an elective course entitled “Black Land Loss in Washington: Memories of the Past, Hopes for the Future,” which explored the racial displacement of a small community that had thrived for more than a century on land we now know as Lafayette Park in Chevy Chase, D.C.

HOPE Crew brought an in-person component to this learning by introducing students to potential careers in historic preservation, land conservation, and geology. Working in Washington, D.C. at Georgetown’s Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park, students cleared invasive growth and used ground-penetrating radar to locate missing graves.

Established first as the “Old Methodist Burying Ground” in 1808 for both white and Black (free and enslaved) individuals, the site was renamed “Mt Zion Cemetery” after white members of the Methodist church started disinterring family members from the burial ground in the 1800s and moving them to nearby Oak Hill Cemetery.

photo by: Steven Voss

In 1842, the Female Union Band Society, a mutual aid society, took ownership of grounds to the west and eventually merged both cemeteries. This sacred ground also served as a refuge for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad.

As Black families moved away from Georgetown or were displaced, the cemetery became threatened and was nearly lost to developers several times. Thankfully, once the property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, developers lost interest.

In recent years, community members have stepped in to reclaim the space. About 300 marked graves still exist, in addition to numerous dislocated gravestones that lie atop the hill. However, undertaker records beginning in 1855 show 2,700 names of the deceased buried here, and up to an additional 5,300 people are suspected of laying in rest at Mount Zion according to church records.

HOPE Crew working in Washington, D.C. at Georgetown’s Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park in 2021

photo by: Steven Voss

Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park

In honor of those interred on these three acres, we wanted to assist the cemetery stewards in identifying missing graves through use of modern technology.

Working with Dr. Jarrod Burkes, Director of Archaeological Geophysics at Ohio Valley Archaeology, the students learned how to perform a survey using magnetometer and ground penetrating radar, a first for HOPE Crew.

Additionally, the participants worked to prepare the grounds for survey by sensitively removing invasive growth and using photogrammetry to create 3D models of some of the remaining headstones.

HOPE Crew working in Washington, D.C. at Georgetown’s Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park in 2021

photo by: Steven Voss

“It seems odd to keep having these discussions about environmental injustice if we aren't training communities and individuals with a vested interest in addressing that injustice,” said Lisa Fager, Executive Director of the Mount Zion Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park Foundation. “We provide the communities who have the greatest need with rocks and scissors, while others have computers and satellites to figure out how to meet these environmental challenges. We’re very excited about starting this partnership with the HOPE Crew and exposing youth to new career pathways while they absorb the D.C. history they didn’t receive in school.”

By means of the geophysical survey, we were able to locate hundreds of graves, allowing the cemetery to have a full survey of formerly missing and disinterred graves to help navigate future improvement projects without disturbing resting places.

We were privileged to work with the cemetery volunteers, UDC, LAYC, the Ohio Valley Archaeology team, and the DC Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation division. Completion of the Memorial Park surveying project was made possible by a grant from the National Trust’s Preservation Funds.

A woman wearing a HOPE Crew t-shirt in what looks like a tropical environment looking forward at the camera.

Molly Baker is the program manager for HOPE Crew.

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