Breaking News
More () »

A DC developer trashed 37,000 Black gravestones. Here’s how they ended up in the Potomac River

55 Historic African American gravestones found tossed along the Potomac River will be reunited with remains.

WASHINGTON D.C., DC — Four years ago on a pretty fall day, Virginia Senator Richard Stuart was exploring his newly purchased farm along the Potomac River with his wife. She spotted large rocks on the shoreline that seemed out of place in the wooded area. 

In shock, she gasped. 

"Is that a ...," she asked.

Stuart finished her sentence before she was able to articulate the rest.

"A tombstone," he said. 

After further research, Stuart learned that his land was the dumping ground for thousands of historic Black gravestones from the Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

From 1859 to 1960, the D.C. cemetery was the final resting place for more than 37,000 African American residents in and around the nation’s capital. Among them were two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglas, Phillip Reid—who helped create the Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol, many Black Union Army veterans, and one of D.C.’s first Black policemen.

In 1960, the land was sold. Most of the remains were relocated to National Harmony Park in Landover, Md. But the original tombstones were discarded.

A Virginia farmer saw an ad in the Washington Newspaper for free rip-rap. For two years, he transported truckloads of the discarded tombstones from Rhode Island Ave. in D.C., to his property in King George, Va. He dumped them along his two-mile stretch of coastline to prevent his land from eroding into the Potomac River.

Now, thousands of historic Black gravestones are currently lost in the muddy river banks. And the bodies of Black people originally buried with respect, remain unmarked at the new burial ground in Maryland.

Many countries and cultures are taught to respect and honor the dead. But America has a long history of desecrating hallowed ground that memorializes the legacy and history of Black people. Even after death, racism continues to haunt African Americans who have been laid to rest.

In the generations since enslavement, countless Black burial sites across the United States have been neglected or re-buried by gentrification and infrastructure development, leaving descendants unable to locate or visit their ancestors.

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation that seeks to better protect historic black cemeteries. The Bill cited that African American burial grounds often failed to receive the type of maintenance and record-keeping that predominantly White burial grounds enjoyed.

The once historic D.C. cemetery is now the site of the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station. 

In a moment of racial reckoning, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser joined descendants Monday to begin the process of honoring their family members by returning 55 gravestones to a proper memorial site at National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Md.

“It’s our duty to make sure these headstones are returned to the graves they were intended to mark and honor,” said Governor Northam. “As we reckon with the many impacts of systemic racism, we must tell the full and true story of our shared history, including indignities inflicted on people of color even after death.”

The grave markers that have been rendered illegible from being worn smooth over time and cannot be removed from the water will become part of a living park-like memorial wall with protective shoreline vegetation. Boaters will be able to learn about the site through historic markers that will be placed at Virginia’s Caledon State Park.

RELATED: 'I don't know if they're buried there' | Proposed bill would preserve historic Black cemeteries

RELATED: Centuries-old Black cemetery in Prince George's County searches for unmarked graves

Before You Leave, Check This Out