By Maria Race
The first time I set foot on the sacred ground of the historic Mount Zion/Female Union Band Society Cemeteries, located at 27th Street NW and Mill Road NW in Georgetown, was during Lent when Holy Trinity participated in an ecumenical Stations of the Cross. Our walk started at Holy Rood Cemetery and eventually wound through a lovely wooded trail into Oak Hill Cemetery, ending at Mount Zion. With its broken tombstones and unmarked graves, I was immediately struck by the lack of respect for the inhabitants. Decades of economic and social inequality based on race had reinforced, in death, the same gulf between the white inhabitants of Oak Hill and the primarily black inhabitants of Mount Zion that had probably divided them in life. Won’t all our souls rise the same?
Now, as a participant in the fall session of “Just Faith,” I feel more “scales” being removed from my eyes. Participating parishioners have been immersed in the history of American enslavement and its impact on all lives for generations. As one member of our group exclaimed, “I am beginning to think my American History degree is worthless.” We are rediscovering erased history together. As a white 59-year-old woman from Springfield, Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln,” I realize how little of this history I was ever taught and it has been a true education and blessing in my life both to read the materials and to do it with others who are feeling the impact of the same readings and discussions so that I have a place to express both my own confessions and my hopes for the future.
I felt drawn back to Mount Zion during this course to sit with the souls in the cemetery, to honor them, walk with them, speak with them. This time, I took a slow walk there alone on a beautiful day, carrying a book of Psalms, several thousand people buried anonymously beneath my feet. I started taking pictures of the broken tombstones that had been lovingly pieced back together by those for whom renovating this space is a long-term passion project. At first I walked, then sank into the space, trying to feel the thoughts of the souls and to understand them. I wondered, who was Maria Johnson, consort of Robert Johnson? Was she black or white? Who was Henry Cover whose beautiful tombstone was lovingly erected by his wife? I found out later that in the city directory he was listed as a “coloured grocer” in Georgetown. But how did he die at age 43? Was his early death a result of racism?
I walked to the small Underground Railroad shelter within a corpse vault where people escaping slavery hid while on their journey north. It was cracked open slightly and there was a person in there sleeping, it is still a place of rest and safety. I walked the perimeter path that runs between Oak Hill and Mount Zion, the stark contrast between the well-kept, entirely fenced, and substantially endowed “white” cemetery and the destitute Mount Zion so extreme that it is breathtaking. Do souls have a race? Do we truly need to visit the same indignities after life as during it? The juxtaposition of the “private property” sign facing into Mount Zion from the fence between the two cemeteries signaled a very wide gulf indeed. Overgrown Virginia creeper in Mount Zion obscuring what tombstones remain on the hillside next to a mowed and tended Oak Hill was beautiful in its own way, but not in the way we typically associate with love and reverence for our dead.
I walked to a bench and sat to read some Psalms. It occurred to me that the souls around me would like to hear them and I started reading aloud, my book open to Psalm 107, “Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty and their lives ebbed away.” I felt my heart reaching out, thinking into space, “How many of you, my friends, were enslaved? How many of you am I holding in my heart, in sorrow, holding you up to the Lord in grief for the harshness of your lives? How am I and my ancestors complicit in your pain?”
As one of our books, 40 Days of Prayer for the Liberation of American Descendants of Slavers asks us to pray: “Make straight in DC a highway for our God; Every valley in DC shall be exalted and every mountain and hill in DC shall be brought low. The crooked places in DC shall be made straight and the rough places shall be made smooth; And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed in Washington, DC; and all of DC and all nations shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
May it be so — that we all realize the hidden truths, that we make the crooked ways straight, revealing to ourselves, then to each other, one person at a time, then in pairs and groups, the erased history until equality is a reality for all of us.