Greater Greater Washington

History


Cemeteries east of the river have rich histories

"There's a good probability if you dig anywhere in DC that's been undisturbed you will uncover evidence of human remains," says Paul Sluby, genealogist and historian of DC's cemeteries past and present.


Headstones at the Adas Israel Congregation Cemetery, adjacent to the Congress Heights Metro station. Photo by the author.

The first known cemeteries on land that would become the District of Columbia were family plots on farms throughout the Maryland countryside. East of the river, these family graveyards, along with congregation graveyards beside some of the area's first churches, are the oldest known cemeteries.

An 1889 article in the Evening Star mentions an "ancient church and cemetery, on the road from Anacostia to Benning" that has since been lost to time.

Over parts of five decades, Sluby's research has identified more than 30 private, public, military, chapel, and government-sponsored burial grounds east of the river.

Some of the earliest sites were for the Wood family of Anacostia, the Deans of Deanwood, and the Bells of the present-day Benning Road area. These family plots date back to the years immediately after the Civil War.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, subdivisions were planned and developed beyond the city's historic core, transforming what had once been bucolic and pastoral land. In the early summer of 1852, Washington's City Council passed an ordinance that prohibited any new burial grounds within the Boundary Street (today Florida Avenue) limits of L'Enfant's plan, according to Steven J. Richardson's article "The Burial Grounds of Black Washington: 18801919" in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society.

Existing cemeteries east of the river

Of the more than 250 public and private cemeteries documents show have interred Washingtonians for over 2 centuries, 22 remain, according to the DC Historic Preservation Office. More than a half dozen are found east of the river: Woodlawn Cemetery on Benning Road, a clustering of Jewish Cemeteries in Congress Heights, and the Saint Elizabeths Hospital Civil War Cemetery, on a hillside slope on the West campus that can be seen from I-295.

Seeing its first patient in 1855, during the Civil War, the United States Government Hospital for the Insane swelled with patients. "Many of the battlefield victims received at St. Elizabeths Hospital were dead on arrival, and others, too seriously wounded to be saved, died in the hospital," Sluby writes in Bury me deep: Burial places past and present in and nearby Washington, D.C. "These deaths necessitated the establishment of a hospital burying area for these causalities."

In more than 20 rows of head stones rest the remains of nearly 300 Civil War dead, both Confederate and Union, black and white soldiers alongside local civilians. According to a historic marker, "When the foliage of the local forest subsides in winter, the cemetery is visible from a considerable distance since the white headstones are placed in the form of a cross."

Old Jewish cemeteries

The presence of Jewish burials in southeast Washington dates back to the 1860s, when the first internments interments were made off Hamilton Road, now Alabama Avenue SE. More than 150 years later, the Washington Hebrew Congregation and Adas Israel Congregation maintain their cemeteries adjacent to the Congress Heights Metro station and Malcolm X Elementary School on the 1400 block of Alabama Avenue SE.


Ohey Sholom Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah Cemetery. Photo by the author.

Tucked behind Adas Israel and Washingtin Hebrew are two additional Jewish graveyards on 15th Place SE, bordering the Henson Ridge development. Ohey Sholom Talmud Torah Cemetery purchased its land in 1895, according to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. Its neighbor cemetery, Elesavetgrad, which sold plots to fraternal organizations, is named for a town in Russia.

In recent months, the caretaker's house at the Washington Hebrew Memorial Park has been refurbished and a new visitor's center has been built. The cemeteries are open on Jewish holidays and to the public by appointment.

Woodlawn Cemetery


Volunteers with members of the Woodlawn Perpetual Care Association at a clean up of Woodlawn in September 2010. Photo by the author.

Off the 4600 block of Benning Road NE rests Blanche K. Bruce, the first black American to serve a full-term in the United States Senate, pioneering lawyer at Howard Law School and United States Congressman from Virginia, John Mercer Langston, a chronicler of black authors and history for nearly a half-century at the library of Congress, Daniel A. P. Murray, and leading physicians, educators, and pastors of 19th and early 20th century Washington.

According to an independent study by the DC Department of Environmental Services, there were 35,895 internments interments at Woodlawn from 1895 through June 17, 1971. Woodlawn received its last burial in 2000. In recent years the Woodlawn Perpetual Care Association, led by Tyrone General, has advocated that the city transform the 22.5-acre cemetery into a living history park to "honor our ancestors."

Lost cemeteries

More than one third of the cemeteries in the 1909 Boyd's City Directory of Washington, DC are east of the Anacostia River. Recorded, but no longer surviving, are the Macedonia Cemetery in Hillsdale, Good Hope Cemetery on Hamilton Road, Jones Chapel Cemetery on Benning Road, and Payne's Cemetery on Benning Road, on ground where the Fletcher Johnson Education Complex stands today.


1903 Baist Map shows Woodlawn Cemetery and Payne's Cemetery across from each other on Benning Road SE. Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library.

Along with Woodlawn, Payne's Cemetery buried predominantly black Washingtonians. Reports of the Health Commissioner to the District's Board of Commissioners in the 1880s indicate the first activity at Payne's Cemetery. Official records confirm that from 1880 to 1930 there were 10,951 internments at Payne's Cemetery. Of that number, only 29 were white. In the 1960s the remains of the buried at Payne's were transferred to the National Harmony Memorial Park in Prince George's County.

The Historic Preservation Office has just released a brochure, Gone But Not Forgotten: Cemeteries in the Nation's Capital, that explores the history of burials in Washington, from Native Americans through the Colonial era and early development of the new Federal City, and into the Romantic age of highly-designed garden cemeteries. The brochure is available at the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library or online.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia

Comments

Add a comment »

Check the title. "C cemeteries...?"

by MDE on Dec 4, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

The caption should say ohev shalom, not ohey (just read the Hebrew!) :)

Translation: lover of peace

by Woodsider on Dec 4, 2012 8:09 pm • linkreport

Interesting article, but what would be more interesting is an analytical study of the impact cemeteries have on land use, prices, and urban sprawl.

I'm of the belief that cemeteries are a huge waste of precious land resources that could best serve the public via agriculture, park space or even development.

Full disclosure: I intend to be cremated based on my belief noted above.

by TC on Dec 5, 2012 9:56 am • linkreport

Please check your spelling - it's quite a shock to see anything about Jewish "internments" in the DC area in the 1860s. You meant "interments".

One of those things spellcheck would never find.

by belinskaya on Dec 5, 2012 10:45 am • linkreport

where was the Macedonia one located specifically?

by Matt Engel on Dec 5, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

Spend an afternoon walking through Oak Hill in Georgetown, and you'll see it is an absolutely beautiful park. It is much more attractive because of the monuments and the history, compared to how a regular park would be in the same place. This is my favorite place in DC.

by Ray on Dec 5, 2012 3:02 pm • linkreport

@Woodsider

Thank you for picking that up.

@Belinskaya

My apologies. In no way intentional.

@Matt Engel

Have to review old maps and/or email Barbara Bates / Paul Sluby. Will post a comment back here if I confirm the location.

by John Muller on Dec 5, 2012 3:15 pm • linkreport

Elesavetgrad is an active cemetery. It is, in effect, a cooperative of several congregations and others.

These include congregations such as mine Tifereth Israel, which has used it since 1917. While we have a designated area, we own shares in the entire operation. We have few available spaces left, however, we are most interested in insuring that it is well maintained.

Other portions of Elesavetgrad are quite active. It has sold new sections to area congregations looking for a well maintained site at an affordable price.
It also recently extensively renovated its chapel that is used for funerals, etc.

Carl Bergman
Cemetery Trustee
Tifereth Israel Congregation

by Carl Bergman on Dec 5, 2012 4:02 pm • linkreport

I know of another cemetery est of the River in stantontown called Jacob Moore Cemetery. Eventually changed to Rosemont Cemetery.

by Chris Carter on Jan 29, 2013 7:26 am • linkreport

I am also interested in knowing where Macedonia Cemetery was located, near where current Staunton Road and Suitland Pkwy meet?
Trying to differentiate between where the Macedonia Cemetery and the Rosemont Cemetery were located. Had family members who never had a chance to be moved before the bulldozing started.
Also, are there historical markers? Are there and surviving lists of who were once buried at these covered up cemeteries? Where would one turn for answers?

by Heather on Jan 18, 2014 7:32 pm • linkreport

I am interested in finding more information about Jacob Moore and his cemetery. I believe his daughter married my grandfather. Interested in knowing the location and family history.

by Sheryl Norris on Feb 3, 2014 7:48 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or

Support Us