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D.C. archaeologists advocate for historic cemetery

Sunday - 5/19/2013, 11:01am  ET

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A sign identifies the area as a historic park. (WTOP/Jamie Forzato)
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Jamie Forzato, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Thousands of unmarked graves are buried beneath a local park, and one group wants to make sure they aren't forgotten.

Two cemeteries occupied the area now known as the Walter C. Pierce Community Park in Adams Morgan. They contain the graves of at least 8,428 African Americans and Quakers laid to rest during the 19th Century.

The Walter Pierce Park Archaeological Team is advocating for the preservation of the park.

"What people didn't generally know before our project began eight years ago was how many people were buried here and what their names were," member Mary Belcher says. "As a result of the Howard University Archaeological work that took place here, we know that there are still people here. There are still coffins here. There are still gravestones here. There are still graves here."

Over the years, the team has found many artifacts, including exposed skeletal remains, coffin handles and grave offerings. Members of the early Asbury Methodist Church, teachers of early black District schools, and Quakers who helped found Washington D.C. are among the remains.

"We have people here who ran underground railroad operations and helped people move North," Belcher says. "We have people who were passengers on the underground railroad. Mostly, we have children here under the age of 5."

The group fought the District eight years ago to prevent the development of terraces on the park's northern hillside. They won that fight and now they want the park to be a memorial, protected from future excavation projects.

"We want the city to respect and commemorate this place so no further cemetery desecration takes place," Belcher says.

Historians researched city death records to document names and addresses of the people buried in the cemeteries. Some of those names are contained in a 167-page report released on Saturday.

Belcher says many members of the Walter Pierce Park Archaeological Team are descendants, including one woman who found 12 of her ancestors buried there.

"The people who live in D.C. are who they are because of who these people were 120 and 130 years ago," she says.

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