Columbian Harmony Cemetery

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Columbian Harmony Cemetery
Established 1859
Location Brentwood, Washington, D.C.
Country United States
Coordinates 38°55′12″N 76°59′36″W / 38.91997°N 76.993328°W / 38.91997; -76.993328Coordinates: 38°55′12″N 76°59′36″W / 38.91997°N 76.993328°W / 38.91997; -76.993328
Type Closed
Owned by Columbian Harmony Society, Inc.
Size 29 acres (120,000 m2)
No. of graves 37,000

Columbian Harmony Cemetery was an African-American cemetery that formerly existed at 9th Street NE and Rhode Island Avenue NE in Washington, D.C., in the United States. Constructed in 1859, it was the successor to the smaller Harmoneon Cemetery in downtown Washington. All graves in the cemetery were moved to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland, in 1959. The cemetery site was sold to developers, and a portion used for the Rhode Island Avenue – Brentwood Washington Metro station.


Formation and early years[edit]

The Columbian Harmony Society was a mutual aid society formed on November 25, 1825, by free African Americans to aid other black people.[1][2] On April 7, 1828, it established the "Harmoneon," a cemetery exclusively for members of the society. This was a 1.3 acres (5,300 m2) cemetery bounded by 5th Street NW, 6th Street NW, S Street NW, and Boundary Street NW.[2] Burials began in 1829.[3]

On June 5, 1852, the Council of the City of Washington in the District of Columbia passed a local ordinance that barred the creation of new cemeteries anywhere within Georgetown or within the area bounded by Boundary Street (northwest and northeast), 15th Street (east), East Capitol Street, the Anacostia River, the Potomac River, and Rock Creek. A number of new cemeteries were therefore established in the "rural" areas in and around Washington: Columbian Harmony Cemetery in D.C.; Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland; Glenwood Cemetery in D.C.; Mount Olivet Cemetery in D.C.; and Woodlawn Cemetery in D.C.[4]

As Harmoneon quickly filled, the society was forced to find new burial grounds. It acquired on July 1, 1857, a 17 acres (69,000 m2) tract bounded by Rhode Island Avenue NE, Brentwood Road NE, T Street NE, and the railroad tracks of the Capital Subdivision of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Transferral of graves was completed in 1859.[5] It sold the old Harmoneon site for $4,000.[6] An 18 acres (73,000 m2) tract adjacent to the Columbian Harmony Cemetery was purchased in the summer of 1886.[7] From the early 1880s to the 1920s, Columbian Harmony Cemetery was the most active black cemetery in Washington, with 21.8 percent of all African-American burials occurring there. It never ranked lower than fourth in total African-American burials, and between 1892 and 1919 it was number one in every year but one. In 1895 alone, one-third of Washington's blacks were buried there.[8] Columbian Harmony was one of the "big five" of black cemeteries in the District of Columbia.[9] By 1900 landscaping and roads were added throughout the cemetery. A chapel was built in 1899, and a caretaker's lodge in 1912.[10]

Management troubles[edit]

Columbian Harmony Cemetery was filling so rapidly that its owners considered purchasing a new cemetery outside the District of Columbia. By 1901, it held 10,000 graves.[11] In 1929, the society purchased 44.75 acres (181,100 m2) near Landover, Maryland, for $18,000.[12] Some of the owners of existing burial plots sued in 1949 to prevent relocation of graves.[13] Although some burials took place at the new cemetery, no grave relocations took place. In 1950, the society stopped new burials at Columbian Harmony Cemetery.[14] In 1953, the society relocated the few graves at Huntsville to a nearby cemetery and sold its property for $178,000 to a real estate development company.[15]

The lack of new burials left the cemetery in a difficult financial situation. The cemetery was experiencing an annual loss of $3,000 a year.[15]

Closure and relocation of graves[edit]

In 1957, real-estate investor Louis N. Bell offered to buy Columbian Harmony Cemetery. Bell informed the society that he would expand his 107.5 acres (435,000 m2) Forest Lawn Cemetery (which was near the society's former property in Landover) by 65 acres (260,000 m2). He offered the society a 25 percent stake in the new cemetery and to pay all relocation costs in exchange for the property in D.C. Although the society rejected this offer, negotiations continued. Bell eventually agreed to also establish a perpetual care fund, designate a 30-acre (120,000 m2) section of the cemetery as the "Harmony Section", and allowed the society to appoint half the board of the new cemetery association.[16]

Beginning in May 1960, approximately 37,000 graves were moved to National Harmony Memorial Park. The District of Columbia Department of Health had to draft and win approval of a whole new set of regulations to govern the relocations. A D.C. district court agreed to issue a single exhumation order, rather than review thousands of cases. All the heirs of those buried at Columbia Harmony Cemetery were contacted and their permission to move the graves secured. More than 100 workers exhumed, recreated in new coffins, moved, and reburied the dead.[17] The re-interments were completed on November 17, 1960.[18] It was the largest cemetery move in the nation's capital, and cost $1 million.[19]

When the Rhode Island Avenue – Brentwood Metro station was constructed in 1976, a plaque was affixed to a column near one of the station's entrances to commemorate the former cemetery.[20]

Headstone controversy[edit]

Unfortunately, the relocation agreement did not cover the existing memorials and monuments. According to the Maryland Historical Trust, none of the original grave markers were retained. Furthermore, most of the remains at Columbian Harmony Cemetery were transferred and reburied without identifying which person was being reburied.[21]

The fate of many of the original markers remained a mystery for almost a half-century. In 2009, hikers found a large number of headstones from Columbian Harmony Cemetery lining the banks of the Potomac River on privately owned land near Caledon State Park in King George County, Virginia. According to the landowner, most of the headstones were buried on-site when the cemetery was relocated. However, the landowner was permitted to haul debris away from the site to use as riprap. This included granite headstones, highly detailed marble markers, and other funerary monuments.[22]

Notable interments[edit]

A number of nationally and locally important African Americans were buried at Columbian Harmony Cemetery. Among them was the first African American D.C. firefighter (who name was not known) to die in the line of duty.[23] Other notable interments included:


  1. ^ Sluby and Wormley, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b Richardson, p. 307.
  3. ^ Sluby and Wormley, p. 10-11.
  4. ^ Richardson, p. 309.
  5. ^ Sluby and Wormley, p. 13.
  6. ^ Proctor, John Clagett. "Many Burial Places in Old Washington." Washington Star. December 1, 1929, p. 13.
  7. ^ Sluby and Wormley, p. 21.
  8. ^ Richardson, pp. 311–12.
  9. ^ The others were Payne's Cemetery, Mount Olivet Cemetery, Mount Zion Cemetery, and Mount Pleasant Plains Cemetery. See: Richardson, p. 321.
  10. ^ Sluby and Wormley, pp. 25–27.
  11. ^ "Honored Confederate Dead." Washington Post. May 31, 1901.
  12. ^ Sluby and Wormley, p. 30.
  13. ^ "Cemetery Row Referred to D.C. Counsel." Washington Post. August 26, 1949.
  14. ^ Sluby and Wormley, pp. 37–39.
  15. ^ a b Sluby and Wormley, p. 39.
  16. ^ Sluby and Wormley, p. 45.
  17. ^ "Workers Start to Clear 100-Year-Old Cemetery." Washington Post. May 24, 1960.
  18. ^ Sluby and Wormley, p. 49.
  19. ^ "Old District Graveyard's Moving Set", Washington Post. September 1, 1959.
  20. ^ Meyer, Eugene L. "History Chiseled in Stone", Washington Post. October 30, 1998.
  21. ^ "Harmony Memorial Park." Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties Form. Maryland Historical Trust. Maryland Department of Planning. March 9, 2009. Item 8, page 4. Accessed 2012-10-28.
  22. ^ "Gravestones Found on Potomac's Edge." Fox 5 News. March 11, 2009.
  23. ^ "Roses On Firemen's Graves", Washington Post. May 16, 1912.
  24. ^ Kneebone, John T. "Lucy Addison (1861–1937)". Encyclopedia Virginia/Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  25. ^ "Began Life as Slave." Washington Post. March 30, 1902.
  26. ^ Meyer, Eugene L. "At Cemetery, a John Brown Raider Is Remembered", Washington Post. November 16, 2000.
  27. ^ "Harmony Memorial Park." Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties Form. Maryland Historical Trust. Maryland Department of Planning. March 9, 2009. Item 8, page 2. Accessed 2016-09-06.
  28. ^ "Washington's Colored Sousa Dead", Washington Post. January 18, 1897.
  29. ^ "Deaths". The Evening Star. November 25, 1941. p. 13. 
  30. ^ "Army Veteran Paves the Way for African Americans in the Military." Armed Forces Retirement Home. January 31, 2008, p. 7. Accessed 2012-10-28.
  31. ^ "Negro Benefactor's Rites Here Today." Washington Post. January 10, 1934.
  32. ^ "Henry L. Johnson, Dead Negro Leader, Was Son of Slaves." Washington Post. September 13, 1925.
  33. ^ "Funeral of Negro Minister." Washington Post. December 23, 1903.
  34. ^ Skalski, Liz. "A Hole in the Historical Fabric, Stitched Back Together", Washington Post. June 3, 2010.
  35. ^ "Mourn Passing of Robert A. Pelham". The New York Age. June 26, 1943. p. 3. Retrieved January 31, 2017. 
  36. ^ Morello, Carol (April 16, 2014). "Slave who helped build Capitol's Statue of Freedom honored with historical marker". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 6, 2016. 
  37. ^ Savage and Shull, p. 136.
  38. ^ "Funeral Rites Held for Robert Terrell." Washington Post. December 25, 1925.
  39. ^ "Funeral of the Late James Wormley." Washington Post. October 21, 1884.


  • Richardson, Steven J. "The Burial Grounds of Black Washington: 1880–1919." Records of the Columbia Historical Society. 52 (1989), pp. 304–326.
  • Savage, Beth L. and Shull, Carol D. African American Historic Places. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1994.
  • Sluby, Sr. Paul E. and Wormley, Stanton Lawrence. History of the Columbian Harmony Society and of Harmony Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Rev ed. Washington, D.C.: The Society, 2001.