Today’s bike ride took me to one of D.C.’s many historic cemeteries, Mount Zion Cemetery, which is located between 26th Street and Mill Road (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. The cemetery is actually comprised of two separate but adjacent cemeteries, the old Methodist Burying Ground and the Female Union Band Society Graveyard. The two cemeteries equally share three acres of land, and there is no fence or other visible demarcation separating the two cemeteries. Because of this, they eventually became grouped together, and today are jointly know as Mount Zion Cemetery. As a single unit, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
The property originated in 1808 as The Methodist Cemetery, also commonly referred to as the old Methodist Burying Ground, and was initially leased and then sold to Mount Zion United Methodist Church. Then in 1842, a cooperative benevolent society of free black women, named the Female Union Band Society, purchased the western half of the lot to establish a secular burying ground for African Americans. Although Mt. Zion Cemetery has been a burial ground for all races since its inception, it served an almost exclusively African American population after 1849. It served as a cemetery for both slaves and freedmen, as opposed to the ritzy whites-only Oak Hill Cemetery next door. In fact, several white graves were disinterred from Mt. Zion and moved to Oak Hill between 1849 and 1892. Mt. Zion Cemetery is the oldest predominantly black burial ground in D.C.
The last burial there was in 1950, and by the middle of the 20th century, Mt. Zion Cemetery was virtually abandoned and fell into disrepair. And it has continued to be neglected since then. The old wooden grave markers disappeared, and trustees removed most of the remaining stone grave markers, which have been recorded and stored pending eventual restoration of this historic site. The few grave markers that remain at the site are in disarray, and many are grouped in a pile near the front of the cemetery. In fact, it can be difficult to even identify the site as a cemetery in its current state, and it is even more difficult to understand its historic significance. But restoration is underway. It is being done by Dumbarton Church, as the current owner, and the Society for the Preservation of Historic Georgetown.
Despite its current condition, one of the highlights and perhaps the most historically relevant parts of the cemetery remains intact. At the back of the cemetery there is a red brick underground vault. In addition to serving as a burial vault, it was also used as a hideout for slaves escaping north toward Philadelphia to freedom on the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century slaves of African descent to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. One of those allies was Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which used the vault because churches and their property were less likely to be searched by slave hunters.
Hopefully, the restoration of Mt. Zion Cemetery and its history will be successful, because in addition to being the final resting place for hundreds of souls, it is also a physical reminder of African American life and the evolving free black culture in D.C., from the earliest days of the city to the present.