Leaving toys on graves was once seen as a strange in DC cemeteries..Another called it a “rustic Negro burial custom.”

Leaving toys on graves was once seen as a strange in DC cemeteries

Morgan Mccarthy

A newspaper headline described it as a “queer custom observed in Washington.”

Another called it a “rustic Negro burial custom.”

What might not seem like an uncommon sight to anyone passing by a cemetery today—toys and mementos left on graves—apparently intrigued people enough in the late 19th century to warrant widespread media coverage .

A recently discovered article from 1894, focusing on a DC cemetery, appears to have appeared in slightly different versions in publications across the country and in at least one other country.

“In an old Negro cemetery in Washington, D.C., a curious custom is still observed—that of placing on the graves of deceased friends and relatives the articles which they liked the most or used most during their lives, and which Bottles containing the remains of the medicines administered during the last illness,” one version of the article begins.

The article further describes the differences between Georgetown’s “Mount Zion Cemetery,” where enslaved and free blacks were buried, and the nearby “beautiful Oak Hill Cemetery,” where prominent white residents were buried.

“Both are scenically located on sloping grounds overlooking Rock Creek at its most scenic point,” reads one version of the article. “Separated only by a short piece of land and a high wooden fence, the two ‘quiet cities’ offer the most vivid contrast imaginable. On one side are rolling green lawns, flowering shrubs, gravel paths and magnificent monuments; on the other, wild growth of grass and weeds, worm-eaten and discolored wooden headboards, and instead of flowers, a motley heap of toys, jewelry, and tools.”

Halloween is now behind us, so it seems like the wrong time to talk about cemeteries and haunting traditions.

But this article is as much about the future as it is about the past. His discovery has sparked excitement among people working toward an ambitious goal: to tell the stories of those buried in two of Washington’s oldest black cemeteries.

Until the pandemic, they were names on tombstones. Then they became reminders that “Georgetown was black.”

Portions of this article were published over the past few weeks on the Black Georgetown (@blackgeorgetown) Instagram page, an account for the foundation that is trying to restore and preserve the Mount Zion and Female Union Band Society cemeteries. The adjoining burial grounds, often referred to as a single cemetery in recent years, served as the resting place for thousands of enslaved and free blacks. Exactly how many is unknown. So are the names of many of these people and the details of the lives they led.

Finding information about them was no easy task for the volunteers who took on the task. Many of the tombstones have been displaced and damaged over time. Others contain minimal information. Then there is the challenge of finding records that have been preserved and made publicly available to fill in the many gaps.

This is what makes the 1894 article so significant. It paints a picture of what the cemeteries once looked like. It also shows that the glass bottles and other items found at the site over the years may not be junk; They may be the remains of gifts left for the dead.

“Proof the ancestors don’t play,” reads a post on Black Georgetown’s Instagram page. “I represent the oldest black cemeteries in Washington DC and we knew these burial customs and we often find mini bottles and 18th century pottery etc here, but they[government guys]tried to tell me it was garbage or backfill. My spirit, or rather my ancestors, told me otherwise.”

Lisa Fager, who wrote the post, is executive director of the Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park Foundation. She said the article didn’t turn up in a search for the cemetery’s name, but was discovered by volunteer Erika Berg while researching historic African-American cemeteries in Georgia. Versions of it were then found to have appeared in publications in places such as California, Kansas, Illinois, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Massachusetts. It also ran in Wales. This version of the article that Fager shared with me shows only a slightly different description of the cemetery’s location: it swaps “Washington, DC” for “Washington, in America.”

The discovery of the article comes at a time when Fager and Mark Auslander, a professor and historian, have been working to find out more about “Nannie,” a 7-year-old girl who died in the cemetery in 1856, days before her birthday buried.

I told you in a previous column about the mystery of her tomb and how it drew strangers together. Toys cover the ground around her tombstone, and every May someone leaves her a card for her birthday.

Someone keeps leaving toys on the grave of a 7-year-old in a historic black cemetery. Nobody knows who.

“Next year Nannie will celebrate [her] 175th, and we hope to get a little closer to her story,” said Fager. And now that they also know that leaving toys is connected to the cemetery’s broader story, she said, “We need to retell the story with the new information.”

Fager said she believes the omission of medicines and other items could also be related to the subway because the cemetery served as a stop. “If you just thought black people were ‘peculiar’ in leaving clothes, food and medicine outside for the dead, well that’s the game they would play with colonizers,” she said.

The article describes the importance of leaving objects on graves in this way: “The Negroes’ idea of ​​placing them in the cemetery is that they are within easy reach of the spirits, who they confidently believe know the sites of their revisit earthly suffering. When they find familiar items on their graves, they confine their manifestations to the graveyard — if not, they go after the families who neglected to provide them.”

A high chair and toy wheelbarrow were found on a young boy’s grave, according to the article. And on the grave of a woman labeled “Terror” lay a large fan made of palm leaves. The purpose, explained a man quoted in the article, was to offer her a refreshing respite from what was likely a “hot place” where she had landed.

“One grave has, instead of a memorial, a large wooden hobbyhorse buried waist-deep in the ground,” the article reads. It explains that the tomb belonged to a man who was an express car driver in his lifetime. “He loved his horse very much, and his widow, who had to sell it, bought a wooden horse with part of the proceeds.”

Another tomb is described as belonging to a “good woman” who had a fondness for bonnets. She has been known to show up at church with a new one every week and to give her old one to someone in need. When she died, her sister placed the last bonnet she bought in a box with a mirror so she could see herself and then left it on the grave.

Later, all but the box disappeared. The fact that they were gone, the article said, only fueled the belief that these were exactly the items she wanted.


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