by Pat Henry*
About 15 Georgetown Lutheran Church members and friends wielded shovels, pruning shears, clipboards and pens Sun. Sept. 10, 2017 as part of a service project to document gravestones at the historic Mount Zion Cemetery.
The cemetery, near the intersection of Q and 27th streets in D.C., is the burial place for many of Georgetown’s early black residents. Though the graveyard is on the National Register of Historic Places, it has fallen into disrepair, with headstones toppled and broken.
Volunteers from Georgetown Lutheran Church (GLC) cleared weeds and debris off grave markers in order to record information on each–material, color, dimensions, whether flat or standing, and any inscriptions.
According to GLC event coordinator Sophie Guiny, “At GLC, we are very proud and aware of our long history, and it seemed fitting to choose a service project where we could lend a hand in honoring the history of a different religious community in Georgetown. We also hoped we would show the way in mending some racial relation issues by working on a historic African-American burial ground that suffered from neglect while the neighborhood itself thrives.
“The most interesting part of the project was rediscovering the names that have been forgotten,” Guiny said. “Sadly, not all the tombstones were legible, and some bore only initials, but we were able to get a glimpse into the lives of community members from the early 1800s through 1950. We found a few markers commemorating pastors, other pillars of the communities, and many women as the Female Union Band Society occupied approximately half of the burial ground.”
The GLC afternoon of service was launched in connection with the ELCA’s “’God’s Work, Our Hands’ Sunday,” a churchwide day of service.** Among participants was the Rev. Brett Davis, who was celebrating her first Sunday as GLC’s pastor.
The cemetery has been the subject of repeated cleanup drives over the years. The latest effort began last spring, spearheaded by Georgetown architect Outerbridge Horsey in cooperation with the Mount Zion/Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park Foundation. It involves a variety of surveys–including topographical, photogrammetric, and ground-penetrating radar–to document the cemetery’s condition, map the stones, and perhaps eventually return at least some to their original location.
Horsey, who helped GLC members with the project Sept. 10, estimated that upwards of 700 people are buried at the cemetery, though there could be many more because of stacking of graves and the disintegration of wooden coffins. About 600 stones have been found, he said.
* Our guest blogger is Music Director at Georgetown Lutheran Church and a former journalist
** Learn more about “‘God’s work. Our hands.’ Sunday” at https://www.elca.org/dayofservice