Community members have brought dozens of toys to the grave of a 7-year-old girl after items left for her over the course of a decade were burned the day after Juneteenth. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)
Community members have brought dozens of toys to the grave of a 7-year-old girl after items left for her over the course of a decade were burned the day after Juneteenth. (Kayla Benjamin/The Washington Informer)

When Patrick Tisdale talks about the people buried at the Mt. Zion and Female Union Band Society cemetery, where he has volunteered for more than three years, he often refers to the names on headstones as if they are old friends. He begins a story about the grave of a 7-year-old who died in 1856, “When I first met Nannie…” 

Other visitors to the historic Black cemeteries in Georgetown have traced family ancestors laid to rest at the site, and Tisdale is far from alone in feeling connected to the people interred there. That’s especially true for Nannie, whose last name remains unknown. 

For more than a decade, someone has left toys and yearly birthday cards by the young girl’s headstone. Nannie’s grave has inspired a series of paintings and prompted a deep-dive research effort seeking to uncover more of her story. The tradition of leaving special items by loved ones’ graves has a long history at the site, dating at least as far back as the 1800s. 

“People started leaving things, just like they left things since the beginning of time,” said Lisa Fager, executive director of the Black Georgetown Foundation, which manages the cemeteries’ preservation and commemoration. “Nannie’s grave was really an ancestral memory.”

That’s part of why it was so appalling when, the day after an uplifting and well-attended Juneteenth event at the cemetery, Fager found a burnt, blackened heap where Nannie’s toys, cards and hair pins had been.

“To see such violence, coming off a happy moment of people wanting to learn—it was really shocking and disheartening and disappointing and sad,” Fager said. “Who targets an almost 8-year-old, a child who died a week before her eighth birthday?”

‘It Was Horrible’

Fager first discovered the wreckage on June 20, while leading a group of George Washington University graduate students through the cemetery. Tisdale was there, too, trailing a ways behind the tour. 

“When [Fager] got over to Nannie, I heard this mournful, sorrowful scream or cry,” Tisdale said. “So I rushed over there. It smelled of fire, you know, everything was fresh from the night before. It was—it was horrible.”

While one or two items remained intact, much of the plastic and metal from toys left around the grave had “fused together,” and become essentially unrecognizable, Tisdale said. 

Fager said one of the students on the tour suggested filing a police report, which they did. Vito Maggiolo, a spokesperson for the D.C. Fire and EMS Department, said that the agency’s investigators examined the burned materials but did not find anything that would show the source of the fire. 

“In this case, there was no way to determine what the origin was,” Maggiolo said. “It’s a cemetery—there’s no security cameras.” 

Fager said the Black Georgetown Foundation plans to install cameras around the site. 

‘When Are We Going to Be at Peace?

Though Fager has never seen anything like this at the cemetery before, it’s not the only example of disrespect she’s dealt with since joining the Black Georgetown Foundation in 2019. The Instagram account she runs for the organization features repeated instances where people let their dogs run through the cemetery, despite clear signage with reminders to keep pets on-leash. Dog poop has become a consistent problem for the cemetery, Tisdale said. 

“The fact of the matter is both of those actions, the fire and the dog-walking, are examples of disrespect,” said Neville Waters, president of the Black Georgetown Foundation. “And in many ways, [they] are a reflection of the ultimate impacts and results of systematic racism, institutional racism.”

Those structural inequalities are clearly illustrated in the contrast between Mt. Zion and Oak Hill, a historically white cemetery located directly adjacent. Oak Hill appears pristine and well-manicured. Meanwhile, Black advocates have been fighting since the 1970s for necessities like a stormwater drainage system, for which D.C. allocated $1.6 million earlier this year.  

“In Oak Hill—they don’t have [any] dogs running in there,” Fager said. “We’re 50 years older than Oak Hill, and they’re right beside us.” 

Descendents of those buried in the Mt. Zion and Female Union Band Society cemeteries struggled to maintain the property in the midst of discriminatory housing and development policy that displaced Georgetown’s Black community. Parts of the cemeteries’ land have been seized for government infrastructure development, and for decades, commercial interests threatened the property as well. 

“When are we going to be at peace?” Fager said. “This land has not been at peace.”

‘People Are Helping Us Heal

In recent decades, advocates for the cemeteries’ preservation have made real headway. The land became locally and nationally recognized as a historic site in 1975. In addition to being one of the oldest Black cemeteries in D.C., Mt. Zion also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. 

More than 200 people came out to the cemetery on Juneteenth this year to learn more about the site’s history.

“That day was one of, frankly, the most inspiring days that I’ve ever experienced at that sacred location,” Waters, whose family has roots in the cemetery, said of the event. “People were very interested in sharing knowledge, gaining knowledge. There was a connection, if you will, with the history and legacy of those who are interred there.”

Volunteers have remained consistently dedicated to the site in recent decades, mowing the grass, weeding out invasive plants and patiently uncovering lost headstones. 

In the aftermath of the fire at Nannie’s grave, even more people have reached out to the Black Georgetown Foundation to ask about opportunities to get engaged. 

Tisdale said he estimates that he’s seen “five or six times” more visitors than average over the last few days. Visits to the Black Georgetown Foundation’s website have also increased, as have donations and emails to the organization, Fager said. 

When Fager first came back to the cemetery the day after discovering the damage, she found two of the GWU students from the June 20 tour. They had returned to the site, bearing new toys to leave by her headstone. Since then, dozens more toys have appeared at the grave.

“People are helping us heal now by bringing things and having their own moment,” Fager said.

She plans to hold a specific day of healing sometime this summer, but she’s not sure yet what that will look like. 

“Every time they write about this place in the news, they write about how it’s ‘neglected.’ It’s not neglected,” Fager said. “If you really looked at the cemetery, you would see that it is not neglected, it is loved.”

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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