A Marker of Hope: Preservation Planning at the Mount Zion and Female Union Band Society Cemeteries

By Special Contributor posted 06-14-2016 17:02


By Tisha Allen

Tucked away behind the historic Dumbarton House in Georgetown lies one of the oldest African American burial grounds in Washington, D.C.: the Mount Zion and Female Union Band Society cemeteries. This three-acre site holds two burial grounds—the Mount Zion Cemetery (formerly the Old Methodist Burying Ground) to the east and the Female Union Band Society Cemetery to the west. Established in 1808 and 1842, respectively, both cemeteries are physical reminders of the city’s strong and significant African American culture. These cemeteries were historically important during both the pre- and post-Civil War eras, and were possibly connected with the Underground Railroad. As such, the site was listed in the DC Inventory of Historic Sites and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and is also designated on the Black History National Recreation Trail. The site is also significant for its connection to local African American religious activism and to the Female Union Band Society, a cooperative benevolent society for free black women founded in 1842. Mary Logan Jennings, former president of the Society and granddaughter of one of its founders, was the last person to be interred at its cemetery in 1950.

 Mount Zion Cemetery in Washington, D.C. | Credit: EHT Traceries

Beginning in the late 1950s, financial constraints, an attempted land sale, thwarted development, and a series of court cases left the fate of the cemeteries in question. In 1976, one year after the cemeteries achieved historic status, the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation (ABC) organized volunteers to clean up the site—vegetative underbrush and overgrowth had gotten so heavy that graves were difficult to access. Court orders allowed removal of gravestones to facilitate grading the area and planting grass; the stones were to be mapped and returned to their prior places once the work was completed. While all but the largest monuments and gravestones were removed, plans to rehabilitate the cemeteries were never fully carried out, and a number of the gravestones remain in piles.

In 1978 the National Capital Regional Office of the National Park Service studied the site and prepared an Assessment of Alternatives for Proposed Project Mount Zion Cemetery Memorial Historic Park. The assessment considered two options: (1) full restoration of the cemeteries to their original conditions, which would include headstone relocation and replacement and (2) an alternate plan for interpreting the site and using the cemeteries as open/passive recreation space with only some of the headstones restored in their original locations. Following a determination that full restoration would not be possible, plans were prepared for a memorial park. However, those plans were tabled due to lack of funding, and the site fell back into disrepair, with broken or missing headstones and continued erosion and overgrowth. These factors make it difficult to identify the site as a burial ground at all, let alone relay its significance to the community.

 Student volunteers helping maintain Mount Zion Cemetery circa 1975. | Credit: DC Preservation League

Since the 1970s laudable volunteer efforts have provided baseline maintenance for portions of the site. Organized by ABC Chairman and President Vincent deForest, volunteers have cleared debris, graded portions of the site, and installed park benches. In 2003 and 2007, donated funds were put toward restoring the only building within the cemetery, a 19th-century masonry vault. Despite volunteer efforts and community activities—such as tree plantings and remembrance ceremonies—there remained much more to be done.

A New Plan

With a renewed focus on the cemeteries but only outdated studies to work from, the DC Preservation League (DCPL) supported listing them on its annual list of most endangered places in 2012. The list is intended to draw attention to threatened historic sites and the cemeteries’ inclusion spurred the creation of a task force to raise awareness and develop possible preservation solutions. In partnership with the Mount Zion/Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park Foundation, DCPL applied for a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, combining that money with financial support of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church the Foundation, was able to hire a preservation consultant to prepare a comprehensive preservation plan for the site. The 65-page plan, completed by EHT Traceries, Inc., will guide the Foundation’s efforts to rehabilitate and raise awareness of the cemeteries. Complete with a historic overview, a detailed character-defining features section, and prioritized recommendations, this plan will serve as a roadmap for the Foundation as it works to engage interested stakeholders and launch a capital campaign to fund future work at this important site.

View of gravestones at Mount Zion Cemetery. | Credit: EHT Traceries

Historic cemeteries are often overlooked in both urban and rural settings. The complexity and expense of these sites’ needs, coupled with lost familial connections, makes them some of the most vulnerable historic resources. Cemeteries offer unique insights into our social history, and if they are neglected and left in disrepair, we stand to lose our collective memories. In the case of Mount Zion, a new life for this historic treasure is within reach, but it will take creative resolve and community support.

This project was funded in part by a grant from the Dorothea de Schweintiz Fund for the District of Columbia of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Learn more about granting opportunities of the National Trust.

Tisha Allen is the outreach and grants manager of the DC Preservation League. As such, she is the liaison to community stakeholders and identifies community needs, plans educational programs, and coordinates the development and implementation of the Historic Preservation Grants Fund. She holds a master’s degree in historic preservation with a concentration in preservation planning and site management.

#Diversity #Landscapes #Planning #AfricanAmerican #PreservationFundGrants

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