Researchers try to document, save historic Adams Morgan cemetery

Photo: Richard Reeve/WJLA

Walter Pierce Park in Adams Morgan is an urban oasis, with quiet walkways, a playground, green spaces, and a dog park.

"Kids here have a good time, everybody enjoys it," says Jerry Zayets, spending a Sunday afternoon with his 4-year old daughter Giselle. "I think it's a good amenity to the neighborhood."

But underneath the park, and in some fenced-off areas, there is a hidden history here.

On seven acres, in two separate sections are a Quaker burial ground, and an 1800s-era African-American cemetery.

"They survived slavery. They survived the Civil War," says Mary Belcher, a DC historian and artist. "This is a place of memory. Remembering instead of forgetfulness."

Documenting the more than 8400 people buried in the cemetery, perhaps as many as 10,000, has been an eight- year labor of love for Belcher and a team of archaeologists.

"If anybody's going to do it, it'll be this generation of people to kind of resolve that proper sense of dignity that their burials deserve," Belcher says.

Belcher and a team of researchers, including graduate archaeology students from Howard University, have uncovered skeletal remains and artifacts, like coffin handles and grave markers with shell designs.

"I know it's important to know about your family," says Sheila White, playing basketball with her 12-year old grandson Tyriq.

White says she's intrigued by the cemetery's discovery, and wonders if she has family buried there.

"To go further, further back in in time to my history, back in slavery. I'm sure I have relatives there. I would definitely want to learn more about my heritage," she adds.

Tyriq says he's been studying about the Underground Railroad in school, and says it'd be interesting to learn more about the cemetery's history.

"It's good to know where you come from," the 12 year old says. "So you can understand what your ancestors went through."

Right now the only thing identifying the site is a sign that reads 'this is a historic cemetery. No trespassing'.

Zayets believes preservation of the cemetery would help the Adams Morgan community.

"This is a historical neighborhood. Preservation's a big part of it," he says. "These signs as you go into historic neighborhoods... add character. That's why people want to live here."

Belcher says several years ago, she and her colleagues were able to stop plans for a terraced garden overlooking the graves.

Now, she'd like to see if the graves themselves can somehow be protected.

And she holds out hope that someday, there might be a permanent memorial.

"We hope this will be a place of joy, where we celebrate people. Not a cemetery where we grieve," she says.

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