The remains of unknown and enslaved men, women and children buried in local cemeteries that have since fallen under the purview of the Archdiocese of Washington have finally been recognized with memorial markers that will forever honor those long-forgotten slaves.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, led a mass and blessing of the markers on Saturday, Feb. 3 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception as part of an ongoing dialogue and reconciliation efforts initiated by the Catholic Church and its area parishes.
In November, Wuerl issued a pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Racism Today,” that called for unity among all people to confront the “persistent evil of racism.” He further said he did not intend for the letter to be the final word but rather the beginning of robust discussion that would lead members of the archdiocese toward reconciliation.
Five major and two minor cemeteries, along with over 40 parish cemeteries, currently fall under the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, including Mount Olivet Cemetery – founded in the District in 1858 and the only archdiocesan cemetery with known graves of enslaves peoples. Four others, established after the abolition of slavery, will also feature the markers honoring unnamed enslaved from the region. Several parish cemeteries in the archdiocese that date back to the time of the first settlers will also be able to place similar memorial markers on their properties.
Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., a lifelong member of the archdiocese and the auxiliary bishop of Washington, shared his views about the memorial.
“We need to recognize our history and acknowledge what’s happened in our past to effect change in our lives, community and society,” he said. “Sharing this history is vital so that we can both teach today’s youth and ensure that we never repeat the enslavement of people whose free will and humanity were ignored and denied.”
“The injustice of slavery and the pain it still causes may be something we’d rather not discuss but it continues to impact today’s society. This is only a beginning but one that’s long overdue,” Campbell said.
Dr. Susan Timoney, the archdiocese’s secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns, noted that the focus that shaped the memorial markers was unlike recent conversations led by the Catholic community from the Georgetown University community.
“At the parish level, many of my fellow Christians recognize the sin cast by slavery but have not have many opportunities to move toward reconciliation and hope,” she said. “We are committed to creating more easily accessible tools for dialogue so we can begin to talk about our history in context of our faith. Racism remains within our community and society but in many different ways. Similarly, its impact on today’s generations and tomorrow’s is profound and cannot be ignored.”
Campbell added that he hopes that new conversations will help today’s youth who will be tomorrow’s leaders.
“Some may still harbor ill feelings about the legacy of slavery but under the direction of Cardinal Wuerl, the leaders of the archdiocese want to ensure that such feelings and such pain are not allowed to be passed on to our youth. As we continue to say, this is only a beginning,” Campbell said.