Mount Zion Methodist Episcopal, Montgomery Street Methodist and Female Union Band Society Cemeteries [known collectively as Mt. Zion Cemetery]
Begun 1808, closed to burial 1950
Segregation hardly ends with death. It can be eternal. There is no more poignant testimony to this fact than the view from the tiny, cramped hill of this decaying burial ground to just across the rusting chain-link fence that separates it from the beautiful and pristine setting of the Oak Hill Cemetery. Whereas Oak Hill has interred and lionized the famous, powerful and connected from its founding in 1848 this, even older, cemetery has quite a different story. The accomplishments of Mt. Zion’s residents (for instance Clement Morgan, the first African-American to graduate Harvard College and Harvard Law School) are buried in the historical record. Seen together, these two contiguous burial zones are not just a single landscape of death and burial, but also one of racial discrimination and its continuing consequences.
Georgetown’s African-American history is submerged in its current public image. In fact, it was a separate municipality from the federal district until 1871, a tobacco and shipping port on the Potomac in which slavery and slave trading were freely practiced until 1862 The center of the African-American community in Georgetown was Herring Hill, almost a self-supporting community on the East side next to Rock Creek, far from the grand mansions of the town to north and west. Those who now live in its tony (and renovated) houses may not realize that their charming diminutive dimensions are related to the fact they are former slave quarters. At the center of this community were the black churches that to this day bind together congregations despite the fact that parishoners now mostly must return to worship from more affordable, and distant, real estate.
At the very top of this neighborhood, on the highest hill, the Montgomery Street Methodist Church established a burial ground in 1808. Founded before the nation itself, in 1772, the Montgomery Street Church was open to all, as was its cemetery. Blacks and whites, however, were buried in separate sections. The grounds were later leased to Mt. Zion, a black church which splintered off from Montgomery, and took possession of the grounds in 1879. This growth in racial division is mirrored by burial practices. Beside the Mt. Zion church itself, the western end of the cemetery was sold to the Female Union Band Society, a benevolent society of free African-American women, begun in 1842. As blacks in Georgetown consolidated around Mt. Zion, whites, of course, were now buried in Oak Hill. Many whites buried in Mt. Zion were subsequently disinterred and moved by their families. An enclosure built into the side of the hill of Mt. Zion is reputed to have served as a respite for escaped slaves on the Underground Railway.
The contrast between Oak Hill and Mt. Zion brings out a striking dimension in the history of landscape architecture. Oak Hill represents the vanguard of the then-new picturesque burial ground movement then spreading throughout the US. Mt. Zion is a paradigm of the older “churchyard burial ground” design that it replaced. Even the history of design is also a history of privilege, allocated by means and power. And while Oak Hill is kept up perfectly and celebrated, Mt. Zion has fallen almost into oblivion. It has taken all the energy of the church more recently to keep it from being built over by real estate interests. In this they have succeeded, at least for now.
Unlike many burial grounds of its type, beneficiary of Georgetown’s arcane development laws that fetishize its past and recent historic preservation movemments, Mt. Zion remains a visible scar of the tensions of Washington, a thoughtful monument in edifying disrepair. It was closed to burial and declared a health hazard in 1950. But Mt. Zion is not lost. Its signage and burial stones moved and damaged, its grounds themselves threatened with overgrowth, it has also attracted some who have worked to recuperate it, to make visible what is buried within it, perhaps most of all, to redirect its future.