Overlooking Rock Creek Park, with its back to a wealthy Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, DC is what appears to be a nearly-abandoned and certainly deteriorated scrap of ground, barely landscaped and littered with gravestones and the remnants of memorials.
Despite its poor condition—and this is after some efforts to preserve and restore it—it holds important places in Washington's history, and in the tangled story of race and slavery, of wealth and poverty in the nation's capital. And, at one point in the not-too-distant past, it nearly disappeared into the hands of developers.
The cemetery is actually two, each about 1.5 acres and with no physical border between them. Though often referred to just as Mt Zion, one of them is actually the Female Union Band cemetery. Mt. Zion started first, in 1808, property of what is now the Dumbarton Methodist Church, one of the few early churches in the area to serve both white and Black, though segregated.
When Black members split off to found what would become Mount Zion Methodist Church, burials continued in the 'Old Methodist Burying Ground,' with segregated sections. It was one of the earliest cemeteries to allow non-white burials, and Mt Zion is the oldest Black church in Washington.
In the late 1840s, 50 acres of land next door were developed as the much larger and fancier Oak Hill Cemetery. Over the next few years, most of the white graves in Mt Zion were moved there by families. In 1879, Mt Zion leased the land for 99 years from Mt Zion and took over operation.
Above, two views into Oak Hill Cemetery
The land between Mt Zion and Oak Hill was bought in the 1840s by the Female Union Band Society, a group of Black and Native women who paid in dues, and in return got $2 a week when ill, and a burial and funeral when they died. Up to around World War I, both cemeteries were reasonably maintained, but times changed, and neglect set in.
You'll have noticed by now that most statements about the cemetery don't come with very firm dates; there are a lot of 'may haves' involved here. But one thing comes with fairly clear documentation: the holding vault built into the hillside, meant to hold coffins when the ground was too cold, served as a hiding place and refuge for people escaping slavery along the Underground Railroad.
In the 1960s, a dozen years after the last burials, and with no sign of the Band Society, Dumbarton and Mt Zion agreed between them to sell the land to developers and remove the graves. But a long dispute over ownership held up the project long enough to enter the 1970s, and preparation for the Bicentennial. DC's Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation asked for and was given the right to manage and restore the cemeteries.
And that's pretty much the picture today. Mount Zion exists, but barely. Some spots, including the vault, were restored, but the main changes have been stabilizing the land, and collecting the scattered tombstones.
It has a place in the city's and nation's history that is important to know. It has a place on DC's African American Heritage Trail; it has a non-profit dedicated to ensuring it has a future, but sadly it doesn't seem destined to become either a full restoration or a well-maintained memorial to what it was.