Cemeteries, Parks, and Turning Lanes

This week we briefly touched on the topic of the history of New York’s Central Park in the course I am a teaching assistant for here at the University of Maryland. Although the course is in Landscape Architecture and we examined Frederick Law Olmsted’s design, I thought it was important to mention a bit of history. In particularly the story of Seneca Village is interesting: it was a small settlement of perhaps 300 African Americans, Irish immigrants, and others that owned land on the site chosen for the park. In addition to homes, Seneca Village included three churches, a school, and a cemetery.

The community re-emerged in the public consciousness in 1992 thanks to Rosenzweig and Blackmar’s acclaimed work, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, which I read excerpts from for a course on New York City history at Michigan. After the book was published things started slowly: this modest website appeared designed by the New York Historical Society and some local students. In 2001 park officials installed a plaque, and today the community is the subject of full-blown interpretive and educational programming, and a complex archeological investigation project at Columbia University.

Locally, a “re-discovered” cemetery under Adams Morgan’s Walter Pierce Park has made the news recently. The Post reported today on the progress of the detailed examination of the site being conducted by Howard University professor and students:

By late morning, the team was ready to document the first find of the day. Adult skeletal remains lay amid the gnarled roots of a black locust tree. The stained bones could be mistaken for sticks by an untrained eye, but Mack pointed out femurs, humeri, a tibia and an ulna. The decaying wall of a wooden casket was also visible, tucked under the base of the tree.

Officials are already considering historical markers and school curriculum about the history of the site.

A similar story unfolded recently in Fairfax County where the Virginia Department of Transportation spent $300,000 to move a small, nearly forgotten 19th century cemetery to make room for a road widening. After hearing about the cemetery VDOT officials installed a large roadside sign asking passersby to call the state with information about the burial ground. The sign caught the eye of Washington Post Columnist John Kelly in 2004, who discovered the state had relocated some 50 graves in the past five years alone for various projects in Northern Virginia. In addition to conducting historical research, VDOT officials got in touch with relatives of the people interred and some three dozen descendents attended a ceremony held earlier this month to unveil a memorial marker at the new site of the the Gibson-Parker Cemetery. The site is named for Horace Gibson and Moses Parker, two African American blacksmiths lived in the area at the time of the Civil War. The project was highlighted as a “best practice” in an internal VDOT publication, where the department boasts about their handling of the case.

Author: Rob Goodspeed