History behind the lost Columbian Harmony Cemetery

For about 100 years starting in the late 1850s, the Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington, D.C. was the resting place for 37,000 Black residents. When that cemetery was sold 60 years ago, the headstones were all sold or given away as scrap. Chip Reid spoke to Virginia State Senator Richard Stuart and his wife Lisa, who vowed to help restore the dignity of the cemetery's residents after 55 of those headstones – and potentially thousands more – ended up in the water near their new farm on the Potomac River.

Video Transcript

- During this month when we focus on Black history, Chip Reid's story about the fate of a Washington DC cemetery is all the more disturbing. His is the tale of righting a wrong.

CHIP REID: Virginia state Senator Richard Stuart and his wife Lisa were exploring their new farm on the Potomac River when they saw something in the water that brought tears to her eyes and made him feel ill.

RICHARD STUART: Lisa and I looked at each other. And both of us said, is that a headstone? And then we looked and we saw another and another and another.

CHIP REID: What did you feel at that moment?

LISA STUART: Horrible. It was just a horrible feeling to think that this person's headstone with here on our shoreline and not where it belonged with her body where her family could grieve and mourn and remember her life.

RICHARD STUART: And that was four years ago. And since that time, we've been working to get them back where they belong.

CHIP REID: They consulted with historians who followed the trail of names to the old Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington DC. For about 100 years, starting in the late 1850s, it was the final resting place for 37,000 Black residents of Washington, including many of its most prominent citizens, such as Elizabeth Keckley, seamstress and confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln; Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood, recipient of the Medal of Honor during the Civil War; and Mary Ann Shadd, anti-slavery activist and America's first Black female publisher.

So how did all these headstones from a cemetery 60 miles upriver in Washington DC, end up here? Well, about 60 years ago, that cemetery was sold. And all those headstones were either sold or given away as scrap. A previous owner here but truckloads of them to shore up this riverbank.

Today, there's a metro station where the headstones once stood. The only recognition, a plaque that reads "many distinguished Black citizens, including Civil War veterans, were buried in this cemetery." These bodies now rest in the new National Harmony Memorial Park in Maryland. But most were reburied without headstones. So the precise locations of the bodies are lost forever.

MICHAEL BLAKEY: That's an ugly thing. And it's ugly because cemeteries are a mark of humanity.

CHIP REID: Professor Michael Blakey, Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at William and Mary, says there's a long history in America of what he calls dehumanization of Black cemeteries.

MICHAEL BLAKEY: It's casual dehumanization at this point. It's a kind of disregard.

CHIP REID: It has a lot in common, he says, with the death of George Floyd.

MICHAEL BLAKEY: The murder of George Floyd, as I see it, by Officer Chauvin, was casual. Chauvin clearly did not see Mr. Floyd as a real, complete human being.

- Yes. This is a beauty.

CHIP REID: A Virginia nonprofit, the History, Arts, and Science Action Network, has taken on the job of recovering as many of the headstones as possible, but it is a monumental task. So far, only 55 have been recovered, with thousands more believed to be buried in the muck.

Virginia's governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, put $5 million in his budget for the recovery effort and is working closely with his longtime Republican friend, Senator Stuart.

Republican Senator, Democratic governor, what's the message here?

RICHARD STUART: Chip, there are some things that transcend politics, and this is one.

RALPH NORTHAM: This wouldn't have happened to a white cemetery in Virginia. And the fact that it happened in an African-American cemetery is wrong, and we need to make it right.

CHIP REID: That's music to the ears of William Hart, whose great grandfather, William Henry Harrison Hart, was a civil rights champion and legendary law professor at Howard University who was buried at Harmony.

Has his stone been found in the river?

WILLIAM HART: No. It has not. I think that I would be overjoyed if I found the headstone.

CHIP REID: Hart admits he has every reason to be bitter about what happened, but he says that's just not how he feels.

WILLIAM HART: I am overwhelmed that other people care so deeply about this issue. Even though this was a tragedy, the fact that people care today brings me great joy.