Headstones at the Adas Israel Congregation Cemetery, adjacent to the Congress Heights Metro station. Photo by the author.
“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.
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: 1880 — 1919” 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.
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.
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.”
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.