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Amid Repatriation of Displaced Headstones, Descendants Explore Family Histories

More than 50 years ago, during the relocation of Columbian Harmony Cemetery from Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast to Landover, Md., an untold number of headstones ended up in the Potomac River.

Some have recently been recovered.

As a cohort of historians and descendants endeavor to repatriate the headstones to what’s now called National Harmony Memorial Park, some members of the descendant community, like Elizabeth Perry, continue to unearth the stories of their beloved relatives.

“When I do my research and get information, it makes me want to have more,” said Perry, a Silver Spring, Md. resident whose bloodline includes Leon L. Perry, a well-regarded early 20th century District education official.

For the past 40 years, Perry has explored aspects of her family history, including their connection to National Harmony Memorial Park.

She received a critical piece of information last fall when Lynchburg, Va.-based nonprofit History, Arts, and Science Action Network [HASAN] alerted her to the discovery of her great-great-grandparents’ three youngest children’s headstone near the Potomac River.

By that time, Perry, who had long scoured obituaries and other historical documents, already determined that nearly a dozen of her ancestors had been interred at Columbian Harmony Cemetery, and four of them had been transferred to National Harmony Memorial Park during the 1950s.

To her disappointment, Perry visited National Harmony Memorial Park in 2017 to find out that the graves of her great-great-grandfathers, The Rev. Daniel E. Wiseman and Capt. James A. Perry had been left unmarked.

She told The Informer that, given the prominence of Wiseman, founder and pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Northeast, and Perry, an official in the Capital City National Guard, both men most likely would have had headstones at Columbian Harmony Cemetery.

Perry has since conferred with HASAN to share information about her ancestors in the hopes their headstones will be found one day.

“It’s a Pandora’s Box [with] any documentation that can help me learn about people who were my relatives,” said Perry, a human resources professional.

“What I found in my research, I can’t even paint a picture as rich as their lives were. The people I come from are pretty impressive so to see their headstones has been precious.”

A KEY DISCOVERY

In 2016, Virginia state Sen. Richard Stuart (R-District 28) found headstones in the stretch of the Potomac River near his estate and nearby Caledon State Park in King George County, Va. Historians later designated Columbian Harmony Cemetery as the headstones’ origin.

That discovery initiated a process to unearth more headstones, return the headstones to their rightful place and honor those ancestors.

In August, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) hosted a ceremony with HASAN and members of the descendant community at Caledon State Park.

During this event, officials oversaw the transfer of 55 headstones to Maryland and announced the construction of a one-acre memorial garden at National Harmony Memorial Park for the 37,000 people buried at the original site.

Over the last couple of years, HASAN, in conjunction with historian Lex Musta, has closely followed the developments unfolding near Caledon State Park and contacted members of the descendant community.

Plans to retrieve and repatriate as many headstones as possible gelled during the pandemic.

The timeline for the memorial’s completion hasn’t been determined but William Hart, a member of the descendant community working on the project, said it should be completed in a year.

“The artist that’s designing the memorial is waiting for my task force to provide a list of bullet points of what will be most important to the ancestors to see in a memorial,” said Hart, the great-grandson of Howard University criminology professor William Henry Harrison Hart.

Hart said that he acquired knowledge about William Henry Harrison Hart during childhood conversations with his grandmother.

After she passed in the late 1970s, Hart continued digging into his great-grandfather’s life, learning about his long journey from Alabama to D.C. during the Reconstruction Era and his launch of the Hart Farm School in Ft. Washington, Md., along with several other feats.

Like so many others who he’s met through HASAN, Hart’s great-grandfather’s grave didn’t have a headstone.

Long before understanding the circumstances behind that situation, Hart purchased a bench-style headstone 15 years ago that not only identified his great-grandfather but chronicled a 1905 court case in which he successfully challenged segregation on public transportation.

Such stories, Hart told The Informer, have inspired him to work his hardest in his darkest moments.

He said that the memorial, to be accompanied by a nonprofit he’s launching later this year, will serve as a reminder for Black youth about the richness of their ancestral history.

“There’s great potential in this,” Hart said.

“You can create an image of people that younger generations can use to form their own self-image. We’re restoring the images of our ancestors in the minds of our young folks. This is a restorative justice effort.”

D.C.’S PREMIER CEMETERY FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS

Between the 1850s and 1960s, Columbian Harmony Cemetery served as one of the prominent burial sites for people of African descent in the District.

The transfer of 37,000 bodies to National Harmony Memorial Park during the 1950s and 1960s made way for commercial development on land that currently includes the Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood Metro Station, condos and retail property.

Lisa Sloane, a market sales director whose jurisdiction includes National Harmony Memorial Park, Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Md., George Washington Cemetery in Adelphi, Md., and Maryland National Memorial in Laurel, Md., told The Informer that there’s no exact record of how many headstones had been displaced during the move to National Harmony Memorial Park.

That’s why she said she encourages descendants of those with unmarked graves to contact National Harmony Memorial Park with their ancestor’s name along with the appropriate dates. Officials would then use that information to determine whether ancestors are interred there and, if so, find their location on the premises.

Though she acknowledged Stuart’s discovery, Sloane said families throughout the history of both cemeteries, and even in the present day, have opted out of purchasing grave markers for a number of reasons.

Over the last few years, National Harmony Memorial Park has aligned its records with that of Columbian Harmony Cemetery to properly identify the location of those moved between locations.

National Harmony Memorial Park has also collaborated with HASAN to match recovered headstones with burial plots.

As of press time, National Harmony Memorial Park has identified placement for 90 percent of those headstones found in the Potomac River.

Since meeting Musta and HASAN last winter, Stephen Hammond, a distant cousin of William Syphax, has embarked on a journey to find his ancestor’s headstone and remains. In February, Hammond contacted National Harmony Memorial Park, which he said has not been responsive.

Stephen Hammond, a distant cousin of William Syphax, stands in front of an historical landmark named for the late Syphax. (Ja’Mon Jackson/The Washington Informer)
Stephen Hammond, a distant cousin of William Syphax, stands in front of an historical landmark named for the late Syphax. (Ja’Mon Jackson/The Washington Informer)

For 50 years, Hammond has conducted genealogical research about Syphax and other ancestors who share a familial connection to President George Washington. He told The Informer that while some of these family members are buried at National Harmony Memorial Park, William Syphax and his progeny had been placed in unmarked graves during the relocation of their remains from Columbian Harmony Cemetery.

As of publishing time, no Syphax headstone has been discovered near Caledon State Park.

William Syphax, born in 1825, was the grandson of George Washington Parke Custis, a plantation owner and President Washington’s stepson.

After Custis sold Syphax, his mother, and older sister to a Quaker in Alexandria, Virginia, Syphax gained a formal education and later went on to work in the U.S Department of the Interior under nine secretaries.

During the Reconstruction Era, Syphax successfully petitioned Congress and President Andrew Johnson for the return of 17 acres of land that Custis bequeathed to Syphax’s mother in 1826.

Today, that land counts as part of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery.

Syphax would later go on to serve as chairman of the Board of Trustees for Colored High Schools of Washington and Georgetown, D.C., when he played a part in the founding of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. He later advocated for the integration and equity of public schools.

A school named for William Syphax during the early 20th century currently stands in Southwest as a historical landmark. During the pandemic, Hammond and other Syphax descendants petitioned D.C. Public Schools to rename Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest in Syphax’s honor.

In regard to Syphax’s headstone, and that of other ancestors buried at National Harmony Memorial Park, Hammond expressed a desire that members of the descendant community will continue to come forward to share the stories of their loved ones and educate the public about the tragedy of this event.

He guaranteed that as the most effective means of righting a wrong.

“My hope is that as a historian, we can fill in the gaps of the history that’s been lost here,” Hammond told The Informer.

“How do we honor the 37,000 people buried and unceremoniously removed from their resting place? We can do justice by knowing who they were.”

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