More than 75 people recently gathered in Georgetown to remember and honor the ancestors buried in two historic African-American cemeteries — Mount Zion Church cemetery and the adjacent Female Union Band Society (FUBS) cemetery.
The combined three-acre, grassy and tree-lined properties, tucked away at 27th Street and Mill Road NW bordering Rock Creek Park, were recognized as an associated Site of Memory of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Slave Route Project. The decree is the first such designation in D.C. and first such U.N. recognition of cemeteries.
The Mount Zion and Female Union Band Society Cemeteries are two of the oldest remaining Black cemeteries in Georgetown and greater D.C., dating from 1809 to the 1950s. The properties are also a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In honor of the acknowledgement, the Mt. Zion Church – FUBS Cemetery Memorial Park Foundation hosted a free public lecture series, “Black Georgetown Remembered,” at the Dumbarton House with historian, lecturer and author C.R. Gibbs, who also has a book by the same name.
“We are honored that the cemeteries and those interred are receiving international recognition of their historical importance as a site of memory of the UNESCO Slave Route Project,” said Neville Waters III, president of the foundation’s board. “We hope this encourages more people to visit the cemetery and support our efforts to preserve this important history by designing a memorial park and educational programs.”
The two neighboring cemeteries recall African Americans that helped build the prosperous Georgetown neighborhood and later the city of Washington. Slave ships embarked from West Africa brought Africans to the Port of Georgetown in the 1700s. Georgetown’s residents included both enslaved and free Blacks, many whom attended Montgomery Street Church (now Dumbarton United Methodist), Georgetown’s first Methodist Church. Deceased parishioners, White and Black, were buried in the Old Methodist Burying Ground.
In 1816, 100 Black members, tired of the church’s segregation practices, withdrew to form a separate congregation, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church (now located at 1334 29th Street NW), the city’s oldest Black congregation. The new church flourished despite the loss of some congregants noted in the registry as “sold to Georgia trader” or “escaped.”
In 1842, a group of free Black women calling themselves the Female Union Band Society bought the property adjacent to the Old Methodist Burying Ground for the burial of freed African Americans. The Female Union Band Society was a benevolent association and offered both pension and burial benefits to its members. The creation of the all-White Oak Hill Cemetery in 1849 immediately west of the Female Union Band Cemetery led to numerous disinterments of White burials in the Old Methodist Burying Ground.
After 30years of increasingly infrequent use, Montgomery Street Methodist Church (known as the Dumbarton Street Methodist Church after 1850) granted a 99-year lease of the Methodist grounds to Mount Zion Church.
Mt. Zion Church and other Black churches in D.C. were keenly aware of the 1848 Pearl Affair, the largest attempted escape of enslaved persons by water on the Underground Railroad. Over 70 enslaved persons sought freedom on the schooner the Pearl that embarked from D.C.’s Southwest waterfront and sailed down the Potomac River. But slaveowners overtook the ship, caught the freedom seekers and sold them back into slavery, sparking riots in D.C.
Elizabeth Edmonson Brent, the eldest sister of Mary and Emily Edmonson, two of the Pearl Affair’s freedom-seekers and inspiration for the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was also the wife of John Brent, a prayer leader at Mt. Zion Church. After the Pearl Affair, there were calls for Georgetown to retrocede to Maryland to protect slaveholding interests. The Pearl Affair also contributed to the Compromise of 1850, which abolished slave trading in D.C. and defused a four-year political confrontation between slaveholding and free states.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act into law on April 16, 1862, which ended slavery in the nation’s capital.
The UNESCO Slave Route Project encourages new research in neglected regions and defines new approaches in teaching, preserving and promoting history and historical sites related to the slave trade. It also aims to promote the contributions of people of African descent to the establishments of contemporary societies and preserve written archives and intangible heritage related to history.
Plans for a spring 2019 formal dedication is underway.
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