By Jonny Grave
I’m walking through an abandoned cemetery on the historic edge of town, in the dead of night, under the light of a full moon, with my girlfriend, and nothing to light the way but our cell phone LED flashlights. This is when we would die in the horror movie, right? Surely, any second now, I’m going to have to fight off the undead, and defend myself from the zombie horde, and take off running through the woods behind Dumbarton Oaks.
Despite all of the B-movie horror stereotypes, the abandoned graveyard we’re trespassing through is one of the most historically significant cemeteries in the District. Although the Dumbarton Street Methodist Episcopal Church has owned the land and used it as a cemetery since 1808, the space is better known for the 99-year lease to the Mount Zion United Methodist Church in 1879.
The church is one of the oldest historically black churches in Georgetown, and used the land for the burial of free blacks and slaves. While the church is still very much alive and growing, the burials at the 17th st. cemetery stopped in 1950. The graveyard soon fell into disrepair, and people forgot about the tombstones in the west end of the city.
People even forgot about the Female Union Band Society, which owned a massive chunk of the cemetery’s property since 1842. It was a cooperative benevolent society of free Black women who swore to protect each other. It is likely, and even plausible, however completely un-provable that this cemetery was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Given its close proximity to the woods of what is now Rock Creek Park, and its ties to a historically black congregation, it’s not hard to imagine the underground vault discovered on the property being used to hide runaway slaves.
The cemetery is in rough shape. Tombstones are toppled, slanting, stacked, cracked, or eroded so badly that the names are no longer legible. There is no cohesive map of the graves dug over the sloping hill, so it is unlikely that the stones will ever go back to their original spots. At night, under a full moon, it’s unsettling.
However, what remains in this hidden cemetery is a sense of unflinching community. Despite the lack of oversight, and outright abandonment of the space, the cemetery provides us with powerful glimpse into African-American history in the District. This was once a congregation that insisted they be together in death, as they were in life.
There’s also the persistent sense of being in the presence of ghosts.