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 of 2020 because Ryan had never been to DC before, and while I had been previously, there are so many things to see that we felt a long weekend would be a great New Years trip and we could cover the basics like the monuments and main Smithsonian museums. There's so much history hiding under landscaped lawns and swept sidewalks, and in the surrounding neighborhoods relics of a very fraught past still remain.
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 astonishment of finding this vault you have know that locations of Black history are primarily destroyed, encroached upon by gentrification, 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 white-washed environment. 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” or small portions of understanding about the entire system of moving enslaved and fleeing 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’. In truth we are taught next to nothing of the real context of the Underground Railroad within our state education systems, let alone do we get the chance to visit the physical spaces where portions of this immense 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 around 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 rare 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 which 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 for 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 unnerving location for their very survival. Looking back at the experience now, we shouldn't have investigated at all because no amount of respect or kindness that we approach with excuses our white selves technically exploiting a place of Black pain and suffering. Our video has since been removed, and we realize that even in sharing this location in such a way, we were doing so from a privileged scope of perspective, and we were wrong to do so.
What no one who saw the video is aware of, is that we were contacted a few months after our trip by someone directly involved with this cemetery. The person also happens to be a paranormal investigator and a person of color who's own videos are posted to YouTube from places like Mount Zion. We were thanked for showing people the cemetery and creating the video. While we're grateful to have reached someone with common interests like ours, that still doesn't excuse our investigating of this location as white people, and we can't prop that comment to us up as sanctioning our video in some way either.
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 profundity of this small brick vault. We learned more from being present in this location and looking around than anything we could have experienced through digital recorders and a spirit box. Upon further researching the history of the burial ground and the gentrification of Georgetown, we came to understand a bigger picture about African American cemeteries in the US and the ways in which places like the Mount Zion Female Union Band Cemetery in particular have come to be in the conditions they are.
It is up to the people who share this neighborhood with the cemetery, those who directly care for it and those who are curious about it to keep sharing information about this rare and integral piece of African American and Underground Railroad history with others. If possible, helping the location's preservation through monetary donations is another option. We're glad we came across this vault and that we can share it with our mostly paranormal-focused audience. Hallowed grounds in this country are direct reflections of society and treatment of the people living at the time and how that can continue today.
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 history.
Thanks for reading,
A National Geographic article about the difficulty in preserving African American burial grounds and cemeteries: https://apple.news/AcCJ7oMQLREq4H5R_l_sDuA