Posts Tagged ‘Congressional Cemetery’


A September 11th Memorial Grove

On today’s lunchtime bike ride I chose to ride to a local September 11th memorial.  On past anniversaries of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon, the World Trade Center in New York, and United Flight 93 which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, I have observed the occasion by riding to memorials to those killed on that day.  I have been to the National 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon, as well as The Victims of the Terrorist Attack on The Pentagon Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  But the anniversary this year falls on a weekend.  So on today’s ride to end the workweek I rode to one of a number of local memorials here in D.C. – the September 11th Memorial Grove, located in Historic Congressional Cemetery (MAP).

Within the cemetery, the grove is configured as an alley, originating across from the gravesite of John Phillip Sousa and continuing southward down a hill to the far edge of the cemetery near the Anacostia River. Because the Sousa grave is the most visited area of the cemetery, the grove draws people in and leads them on a short walk through the memorial site.

The purpose of the memorial at Congressional Cemetery is threefold. First, as a cemetery, it was a logical place to memorialize. And the trees were especially fitting for the cemetery, fitting into its memorial tradition of the use of cenotaphs, or empty tombs. The second reason is because the memorial helps in creating a renewed awareness of the cemetery, to bring more people onto the site, thus continuing the tradition of a cemetery as a gathering space. The third reason for placing the memorial grove within the cemetery was to be part of a landscape plan to re-tree the cemetery.

At the entrance to the grove is a maker containing a poem entitled, “Remembrance”.  It reads,

“For those who no longer hear noisy leaves
shimmering in the summer breeze …
For those who might have sought shelter from the
mid-day sun under a nave of gnarled hornbeams …
For those who would grieve in the quiet space
amid a grove of flowering trees …
For those who perished on September 11, 2001.”

The September 11th Memorial Grove at the cemetery is the first of a series of nine memorial groves planned for the city, with one central and eight ward-based neighborhood memorial tree groves created both to remember September 11 and to celebrate the community that surrounds it.  So I guess I know where I can go on the next eight anniversaries of that terrible day.

[Click on the photos above to view the full size versions]

Gravesite of Leonard Matlovich

Gravesite of Leonard Matlovich

On this bike ride I stopped by the gravesite of Sergeant Leonard Matlovich.  A vietnam era veteran, Matlovich was eligible to be buried in the cemetery most people identify with veterans, Arlington National Cemetery.  But he chose Historic Congressional Cemetery instead.  Located at 1801 E Street (MAP) in Southeast D.C., he discovered the cemetery on one of his frequent walks near his then Capitol Hill home.

Sergeant Leonard Matlovich was the first gay service member to purposely out himself as a homosexual in an attempt to fight their ban on gays serving openly in the military.  He did so by hand-delivering a letter to his Langley Air Force Base commanding officer in March of 1975.  His challenge became public knowledge a couple of months later, on Memorial Day, through an article on the front page of The New York Times, and in a story that evening on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  During his fight to stay in the military, his case became a cause célèbre within the gay community, and resulted in numerous articles in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, television interviews, and a made-for-television movie.  Matlovich also appeared in his Air Force uniform on the cover of Time magazine above the headline “I Am a Homosexual.”

Despite his exemplary military record, tours of duty in Vietnam, and high performance evaluations, Matlovich was subsequently given a “General,” or Less than Honorable, discharge in 1975 by the U.S. Air Force.  He continued his fight after being separated and won a much-publicized case against the Air Force in 1979, which ordered him reinstated into the Air Force and promoted. The Air Force offered Matlovich a financial settlement instead, which he accepted, and his discharge was upgraded to “Honorable.”

After being discharged, he moved from Virginia to D.C., then to San Francisco, and then Guerneville, California. After then moving to Europe for a few months, he returned briefly to D.C., before moving back to San Francisco again.  He remained active in the gay rights movement throughout the rest of his life.  On June 22, 1988, less than a month before his 45th birthday, Matlovich died in Los Angeles of complications from HIV/AIDS.

Matlovich personally designed his internationally known tombstone, incorporating the same kind of reflective black granite that was used in the construction of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.  It is inset with his famous quote, which reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”  The headstone also incorporates pink triangles in reference to the emblem used to mark gays in Nazi concentration camps.  What the headstone does not include, however, is his name.  That is because he meant to be a memorial to all gay veterans.  His last name inscribed at the foot of a granite grave border is the only indication that the grave is his.

Matlovich chose historic Congressional Cemetery because he loved its variety of individual stones versus Arlington’s hundreds of thousands of identical markers. He also was amazed to learn that Peter Doyle, Walt Whitman’s great love, is buried there.  He also couldn’t resist the last laugh of being buried in the same row with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s gravesite, and Hoover’s associate director, longtime best friend, heir, and some believe romantic partner Clyde Tolson.  Hoover was staunchly anti-gay, although speculation and rumors had circulated beginning approximately 30 years before his death that Hoover was homosexual.  Tolson’s grave, marked by a pink granite stone, is just five plots to the right of Matlovich’s, and the Hoover family plot is a few yards further down.

In a tribute no one anticipated, a growing number of other out gays, including veterans and couples, have since chosen to be buried in the same once obscure graveyard such as gay rights pioneers Randy Wicker, Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, and others.  Members of American Veterans for Equal Rights have purchased eight nearby adjoining plots to create a LGBT veterans memorial. And at his graveside every Veterans Day, there’s a gay veterans memorial service.  His gravesite has also been the scene of protests, vigils and ceremonies for LGBT rights activists, and even a same-sex wedding.

His gravesite and the surrounding vicinity within the cemetery, and the activities that have taken place there, would certainly be pleasing to Matlovich, who once said, “I believe that we must be the same activists in our deaths that we were in our lives.”

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Historic Congressional Cemetery

Historic Congressional Cemetery

The cemetery which is located on the west bank of the Anacostia River in southeast D.C. was founded in 1807, but had no formal name for its first four years.  After the property, located at 1801 E Street (MAP), was deeded to Christ Church on Capitol Hill, its name became “Washington Parish Burial Ground.”   Then in 1830, after Congress purchased several hundred sites, built monuments to representatives who died in office and appropriated money for improvements, the public and the members of Congress began referring to it as the “Congressional burying ground”.  Eventually that was shortened to “Congressional Cemetery.”  Today it is officially named Historic Congressional Cemetery.

It is a historic yet active cemetery. Over 65,000 individuals are buried or memorialized at the cemetery, including 806 burial plots which are owned by the Federal government and administered by The Department of Veterans Affairs.  Those interred there include many who helped form not only the national capitol city, but the nation itself, during the early part of the nineteenth century.  Many members of the U.S. Congress who died while Congress was in session are interred at Congressional, as well as other politicians and public figures.  Other burials include the early landowners and speculators, the builders and architects of many of the great buildings of D.C., Native American diplomats, and hundreds of Civil War veterans. Nineteenth-century D.C. families unaffiliated with the Federal government have also had graves and tombs at the cemetery.  In all there is one Vice-President, one Supreme Court Justice, six Cabinet Members, 19 Senators and 71 Representatives – including a former Speaker of the House, buried there; as well as the first Director of the FBI, an American Indian chief, more than one leader in the American gay rights movement, as well as veterans of every American war.  The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.

By the mid to late 1970s, however, urban decay, the declining membership of Christ Church, and the declining value of the endowment funded by Christ Church, left the cemetery with minimal funding and in serious difficulties.  Monuments and burial vaults were in disrepair, and general maintenance on the chapel and other buildings had been delayed for too long.  Eventually, drug dealers, gang members and prostitutes began to occupy the cemetery.  Although attempts to restore the cemetery were initiated throughout the 1980s and 90s, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Cemetery on its 1997 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.  As a result, many gifts and donations were soon received. Congress provided one million dollars in matching funds in 1999 to create an endowment for basic maintenance, and a 2002 Congressional appropriation helped fund restoration.  Today the cemetery is still owned by Christ Church, but since 1976 it has been managed by the non-profit Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery.

One of the more creative management techniques of the Association was the formation of a dog walkers club at the cemetery. The dogwalkers now play a vital role in the running of Congressional Cemetery.  In addition to making up a major portion of the volunteer efforts to maintain the cemetery, donations by the dogwalking members provide enough income to cover the cost of the grounds maintenance contracts.  Additionally, the presence of dogwalkers at almost every hour of the day constitutes a de facto on site patrol all day long, keeping the grounds clear of drug dealers, prostitutes, vandals, and other undesirable elements that had contributed to its decline in the past.  It’s not all business though.  In addition to being able to walk their dogs off-leash over more than 35 fenced-in acres, the dogwalkers enjoy social activities with their animals like “Yappy Hours” in the spring, photos with Santa at Christmas, and the Blessing of the Animals in October.  Membership is a requirement of dogwalking privileges in the cemetery, but it is so popular that there is a waiting list.

Recently, the Association also employed a creative solution to a unusual landscaping problem.  They partnered with Eco-Goats, a company that uses grazing goats to restore land overgrown with unwanted weeds.  They brought in a herd of more than 100 ravenous billies and nannies, and even a few kids, who “goatscaped” the exterior perimeters of the grounds as an “innovative green project.”  The goats grazed 24 hours a day for six days, and eliminated vines, poison ivy, ground cover and even fallen debris, all the while they fertilized the ground.

The Historic Congressional Cemetery provides a unique blend of the past and the present, and is well worth a visit.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]


Click on this photo to take a virtual tour of Historic Congressional Cemetery.