Georgetown, Gentrification, and the Mount Zion Female Union Band Cemetery
Let's talk about our trip to Washington DC, and the side quest trip we made to the Mount Zion Female Union Band Cemetery in Georgetown, a DC neighborhood.
We had planned this trip in early January because Ryan had never been there before, and I (Amy) had been before, but there are so many things to see, a long weekend can barely cover it. And that’s just speaking about the main museums, there’s SO MUCH MORE HISTORY in DC it’s just stunning.
Since we always like to find some weird history, nearly-lost history, or glossed over and forgotten places to explore and film, I googled one morning and found an Atlas Obscura article on a cemetery named the Mount Zion Female Union Band Cemetery in the Georgetown Neighborhood. It wasn’t just any cemetery though, it was one that contains a body storage vault (most cemeteries in colder climates do), that was part of the Underground Railroad! To grasp our excitement of finding this vault, you have know that locations of Black history are primarily already destroyed, encroached upon by gentrification or already gentrified, have never been thought to be preserved by those with the authority to do so, or have been purposely left to neglect and ruin in favor of a more white-washed, comfortable history. These physical locations of Black history are rare, and their importance is an understatement to the national story of America's birth, growth, and present state.
Our education systems in the US include only relatively “safe”, and commonly repeated little bits of understanding about this entire system of moving enslaved and escaping people north into abolitionist territory before, during and after the Civil War era. We do not learn much more than easily digestible points like, ‘Harriet Tubman was awesome, everyone moved at night, followed the North Star and suddenly were free when they crossed some imaginary state line boundary into the overly-glorified north’. The takeaway: we learn next to nothing of true context and understanding within our predominantly white, structured education systems about the Underground Railroad, let alone the physical spaces in which an aspect of this history took place.
I took several screenshots of the article I’d found, read up on what this cemetery and corpse vault was all about, and set our GPS to head there and see it for ourselves. Much of what we do when we film comes from a motivation of “seeing and experiencing for ourselves.” We believe history and the world before us has an ability to communicate, albeit briefly and intermittently, with us now, from that time before. We can’t claim to know how it works or why, but we believe in some lucky instances it does, and our experiences reinforce that perspective for us.
We entered the cemetery from the west, where a residential street lines one side of the property. Immediately we noticed a much larger cemetery to our left, it looked well maintained, terraced, mowed and landscaped. As we walked further along a worn path into Mount Zion Cemetery, we noticed the complete opposite. There were several headstones still in place, but piles of headstones and bases lay scattered on the east end as though haphazardly placed. We’d honestly never seen a cemetery in such condition before. We could only wonder at that point how it had ended up this way.
Continuing further on we found a slope at the north end with wide stairs set into the ground, leading down the hill to a brick building set into the earth, with a massive iron door. The door was open, stuck that way after so long. It was clear no one had needed to use the vault in years, maybe decades. While we investigated, we asked about the people who may have sheltered there for a night or many on end, hiding in such an unnatural and unnerving location for their very survival. Accounts of food and necessities being left on the cemetery property during the years this vault would have been used to shelter the living, implies the true significance of this small brick vault.
The results of our paranormal work there are not as important as what actually happened there. We learned more from being present in this location, looking around and researching the history and the subsequent gentrification of Georgetown, and the individuals and organization that came to rally behind this gem of historic importance so that it remains there, protected.
None of this information will be found in a history textbook though, it is up to the people who care for it and those who are curious to share this rare, integral piece of African American history and the Underground Railroad. We only hope we can share more places like this with our predominantly white audience. If you google, if you learn, if you support historic landmarks of Black History, you are helping.
Visit www.blackgeorgetown.com to learn the full history of the property, the work being done on the cemetery’s preservation and restoration, to donate, and to learn what this place means to our nation’s true history.
Thanks for reading,