On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Over the past 100 years, bodies and human remains have been uncovered on the 3300 block of Q Street NW in Georgetown. Of the remains analyzed, all appear to be of African descent. Experts now think that the block could be home to a forgotten African American gravesite, perhaps with ties to the Underground Railroad or the cholera pandemic of 1832.
If it does turn out to be a historically Black burial site, it wouldn’t be the first in the region to have been commercially developed. The Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda was paved over in the 1960s, and activists are pushing back against developers continuing to build there. The Walter Pierce Community Park in Adams Morgan was once the largest African American burial ground in the city.
Researchers and residents are faced with a central problem, according to DCist‘s Elliot Williams: “What’s the best way to study, respect, and honor Black bodies that are recovered from the earth beneath modern cities, victims of injustices that happened long ago?”
Williams sits down with Kojo to talk about the Georgetown burials.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Elliot Williams Staff Writer, DCist; @ecwilliams30
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking about "Through the Cracks," a podcast from WAMU and PRX investigating the 2014 disappearance of eight year old Relisha Rudd. But first over the past 100 years dozens of human remains including entire skeletons have been unearthed on the 3300 block of Q Street NW in Georgetown. So far, the remains that have been analyzed appear to be of African descent. Researchers think the site may be a forgotten African American burial ground.
KOJO NNAMDIWhat we do know about the burials in Georgetown -- or what do we know about the burials in Georgetown and how can researchers and residents study the human remains while also honoring the history of the people? Joining me to discuss this is Elliot Williams. He is the Staff Writer for DCist who wrote this story. Elliot, thank you so much for joining us.
ELLIOT WILLIAMSAbsolutely. Thanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIGood to hear you. Sorry I can't see you, Elliot, but it is what it is. Elliot, in your recent DCist article you looked at the history of human remains found in Georgetown. Over more than a century, archeologists and homeowners have discovered skulls, limbs, teeth and more on this Q Street block. What led to you writing about this topic in the first place?
WILLIAMSSo, Kojo, a year ago almost to the day, I first learned of four bodies being discovered on Q Street on that 3300 block. And I just wrote a news story about it, you know, just covering what the police and what the city knew initially and dug a little bit into the history. But it was pretty basic in a short story. But in October, this past October, Jen Johnson who is a local writer and historian, who is fascinated with Q Street, he reached back out to me and said that there might be more there.
WILLIAMSBoth historically and physically there might be more bodies and that this might be a hidden African American burial ground. And so that peaked my interest especially given the racial justice protests over the summer when we've been talking about Black bodies and Black lives. So I started digging into there and calling residents as well as archeologists locally.
NNAMDII cannot tell you how many times over the years I have rode past the 3300 block of Q Street NW. It's usually one of the streets you go through if you're going from one part of NW to the Georgetown side of NW. And so you care to describe the block?
WILLIAMSAbsolutely. It's very peaceful. You know, I've been there a few times just on weekends to get a nice stroll through the neighborhood. The homes are, you know, very gorgeous. They're million dollar homes. On one side is Volta Park, which is this sort of slice of recreational heaven. There's a pool, people playing tennis, children playing, but on the other side, lots of construction.
NNAMDIIndeed. How many bodies have been uncovered in that area? And what do we know about them?
WILLIAMSWell, that's a great question, Kojo. To be honest, there's no definitive number, because since the 1800s dozens of bodies have been uncovered. And not every single person reported them to the city. But recently, you know, since 2005, archeologists and locals have uncovered plenty. Currently the Historic Preservation Office is storing remains belonging to at least 28 individuals. And so those are bodies that are waiting to be fully investigated, fully studied so that they can date them, you know, find out when they were buried as well as find out their ancestry.
WILLIAMSSo far, seven have had analysis with preliminary and formal and all appear to be of African descent. So that's where a lot of these questions come up and why historians are digging into that area.
NNAMDIElliot, you mentioned the Historic Preservation Office. And I guess that's who these things have to be reported to. But what challenges do homeowners face when they find these remains on their property?
WILLIAMSThat's a wonderful question, because, you know, when you're going about renovating your basement or getting a pool dug in your backyard and you find a skeleton, you know, a lot of times these residents call the police. You know, they think it might be a crime scene. And so the police, you know, homicide unit does show up. The Medical Examiner's Office shows up and determines this isn't a crime scene. This is of historic significance. And so that's when they call Ruth Trocolli, the D.C. Official State Archeologist. And so she comes in, determines it is historic remains and then also calls upon the Smithsonian's anthropologists who have background in this kind of work, you know, throughout the region.
WILLIAMSAnd so that's when it goes into the hands of the city and they determine from there what to do. But homeowners themselves, you know, they want to know more. I spoke to a few residents actually in the area who, you know, have theories of their own, but really want to know who these bodies belong to and want to know what will be done with them.
NNAMDIWhat are the different speculative theories about why there are so many bodies buried on this one block in Georgetown?
WILLIAMSSo the leading theory -- or one of the leading theories is that this might be part of a cemetery that was right across the street. I mentioned Volta Park, right? Before that was the Presbyterian burial ground for a church that was there. And so some theorize that, you know, this might have been evidence that, you know, Black Washingtonians worshipped there and were buried in that cemetery, but in a segregated part of that graveyard.
WILLIAMSBut others think that these were, you know, land records show that some of those homes were owned by Black Georgetowners and that they might have been buried underneath their own homes, although no evidence has shown that throughout the area. You know, some think that this might be evidence of the Underground Railroad going through Georgetown. We know of notable slave trade hubs through the region. And it might show that free Black Washingtonians were hiding and keeping people safe in this part of Georgetown. So those are some of the theories, but there are definitely more.
NNAMDIHere now is Charles who is in Southeast Washington. Charles, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHARLESHi, how are you doing, Kojo?
CHARLESI just want to give thanks anthropologists and archeologists for doing this historical work. I was very interested in the Foxall Plantation in Western Georgetown. And something I read in Martin Luther King Library. One day I walked in there and it said John Foxall, the benevolent slave owner. And his space became Methodist and learned to trade. He released them. And so a lot of these slaves migrated from Western Georgetown in Foxall over to Foggy Bottom and setup maybe two miles away. I'm just understanding that history of the migration of Black people as well as some prominent Black people who became free and moved to Global Park and setup farms in that particular area as well, which today you can't hardly find that many Black people in that area.
NNAMDIThank you for sharing that with us, Charles. Elliot, you spoke with an anthropologist at American University, Delande Justinvil, who said the burials might be linked to another pandemic that happened more than 150 years ago. What did he have to say?
WILLIAMSYeah. Delande Justinvil is a very interesting student at American University, who is making this the subject of his PhD dissertation. And so he has been called upon by the city to make, you know, devote years to this work. And so he looked up and found out that the cholera pandemic of 1832, you know, could kill entire households within a day. And the city at the time didn't always know exactly what to do with those bodies. And so there are old newspaper clippings that he has found through research partners and through his own research that show at the time canal workers and low wage laborers, when they died, to be honest, the city just buried them where they could in previous burial grounds and in mass graves.
WILLIAMSAnd it kind of reminded Delande of what he's seen during the current pandemic, you know, mass graves on an island near New York. And so he's sort of drawing that parallel that it's often the marginalized, the people of color, the poor immigrants that, you know, are the first to be hit by health crisis and drawing those lines together.
NNAMDIElliot, are there any connections between these burials and the Underground Railroad?
WILLIAMSYou know, that's a question that many people are wanting -- specifically I have to mention Georgia Ravitz. She's been on that block since 1998. She's one of the residents, who looked up her land records and found that the first owner of her home was Black. And so, you know, there's a theory that this could be in connection to the Underground Railroad. That free Black Georgetowners, you know, at the time in the early 1800s 30 percent of Georgetown's population was Black Washingtonians. So there is certainly a possibility that, you know, they could have helped bring people to D.C., which, you know, was at that time a bit of a safe haven for escaping slaves.
NNAMDIHere now is Ann in Washington D.C. Ann, your turn. Go ahead, please.
ANNHi, I was married and lived at 3317 Q Street for the first year of my marriage in the 60s. My mother-in-law at age 99 died three years ago. And her four children, my sisters and brothers-in-law decided to sell the house. And in the process of doing that they found I think two, but for sure one body in the basement. The arm of the person was sticking out from the side of the wall. And your guest has said exactly what they did, which is -- or what they had to do, which was to check with the police so that it was determined that they hadn't killed somebody just then. And then they checked with the Smithsonian. And I know my sisters-in-law could tell you more, but they may not be as much of a fan of Kojo's show as I am.
NNAMDIOkay, thank you very much for sharing that with us. But, Elliot, we only have about a minute left. In your article, you posit an important question. What's the best way to study, respect and honor bodies that are recovered from the earth beneath modern cities, victims of injustices that happened long ago? What did you hear from the people you talked to for this story?
WILLIAMSSo speaking to both the researchers and the residents, there's definitely an interest to find a final place for these bodies. I know that one teenage girl that was discovered they placed her body now at the National Museum of Health and Science in Silver Spring for research and curation. But a lot of people wonder, you know, who has the right to rebury these bodies. You know, if you find descendants -- find biological descendants...
NNAMDIOnly got about 20 seconds left.
WILLIAMSAbsolutely. You know, if you find descendants what will they want to do? Will they even want to be faced with the possible injustices that happened to these residents? You know, so that's a question that remains. Is legislation in place nationally to think about these questions? So there's a possibility that they could be reburied.
NNAMDIElliot Williams is a Staff Writer for DCist. Elliot, always a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for joining us.
WILLIAMSThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking about "Through the Cracks," a podcast from WAMU investigating the disappearance of eight year old Relisha Rudd. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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