Adams Morgan Cemetery Investigated

KickballPerhaps as many as 7,000 people are buried in an abandoned Washington, D.C. cemetery now located under a busy park. The nearly forgotten African American cemetery was re-discovered in 2005 when neighbors discovered human remains in Adams Morgan’s Walter Pierce Park, which includes athletic fields, a dog run, and basketball courts. The cemetery was founded by the Colored Union Benevolent Association when they purchased the land in 1870 for $2,500. It operated until 1890 when it was ordered closed by city officials. The Washington Post summarized the subsequent history of the site in this July article. Also last summer Mike Grass noted on the Express newspaper blog the cemetery is commemorated by a plaque in Rock Creek Park. A portion of the site may lie in property owned by the National Zoo. (The Zoo is also the location of the Holt House, investigated in the 1990s by the Smithsonian in response to community pressure.) This fall Dr. Mark E. Mack, a biological anthropologist from Howard University, will conduct a study of the site with Howard students.

Neighborhood resident and historian Mary Belcher summarized the present state of the investigation in a recent email to the Historic Washington listserv where she describes Professor Mack’s recent visit to a neighborhood group where a “profound silence engulfed the meeting room” during his presentation which included “photos of the exposed remains and partially visible wooden casket that belonged to a woman who apparently had been buried in the Colored Union cemetery.” Mack told the group he thought the project was “just as important” as the high-profile New York African Burial Ground Project, for which he served as the laboratory director. The Howard team is planning to describe the locations of the graves as well as create reccomendations for the city about how they should be protected.

Mary Belcher, Eddie Becker, and Professor Mark Mack will be leading a free tour on “Slavery in Adams Morgan and Kalorama” this Saturday, September 30 as part of Cultural Tourism DC’s Walkingtown event. The tour starts from the SunTrust bank at 18th St. and Columbia Road at 11:00 a.m.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. It’s hard to believe that this cemetery is being “discovered” again. I saw a skull in a hole there as a child around the early 1950s. I am sure that there was a lot of news and questions were raised about the remaining remains when the park was being developed in the 1970s. The work was suspended, but somehow the park went ahead anyway. The writer of the WaPo story could have looked in their own archive and given us much more about the 1970s issue. Why wasn’t the whole matter resolved back then?

  2. It does look like the Post did an archive search, perhaps nothing was reported on it during the 1970s. At any rate, I think this is a site historians have known about, what is new is a comprehensive survey of the site like the one now being attempted.

  3. I am not a serial, argumentative poster anywhere. But I had to come back and say it’s hard to imagine that I knew all about the matter when that park project was held up but that I had never read anything about it in the WaPo. I just think it’s more likely that the Post writer didn’t suspect anything was in the archives, because they assumed that anything that was “discovered” hadn’t been known at any prior time in the history of the WaPo.

    As a result of the stunning news, a lot of people knew about the cemetery at that time, and the research team needs to dig back and find out how the park project went on without first achieving a proper disposition of the remaining graves.

    I also must add that I was surprised when the cemetery became “news” in the 1970s, since the knowledge of it had always been extant somewhere.


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