RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Officials from Virginia and Maryland and Washington, D.C. are working together to transfer historic African American gravestones that were dumped into the Potomac River in the 1960s as erosion control rubble to National Harmony Memorial Park.
“It’s our duty to make sure these headstones are returned to the graves they were intended to mark and honor,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a prepared statement on Monday, Aug. 23. “As we reckon with the many impacts of systemic racism, we must tell the full and true story of our shared history, including indignities inflicted on people of color even after death.”
The Columbian Harmony Cemetery was established in 1859 and served as the district’s most prominent burial site for African Americans, according to Northam’s announcement. In the 1960s, the cemetery was moved to make room for development, including the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station.
The office said while the remains were relocated to a memorial garden in Maryland, the gravestones were sold for strapped or dumped into the river to be used as erosion-control rubble. The grave markers ended up in a two-mile stretch of King George County.
In 2016, Virginia Sen. Richard Stuart was walking along the river of a property he had just purchased when he saw gravestones. The announcement said he went to historians to learn about the gravestones and where they came from. He then talked with state leaders to figure out how to return them to a proper memorial site.
“It was an incredibly special time for me to be able to buy back the property where my people came to America, literally, in the 1600s,” Stuart said. “But if I were the descendant of the individuals whose stones landed on the river’s shoreline, I would be angry. The dead are supposed to be revered and respected. Today we begin the work of righting this wrong and honoring these Americans.”
Northam proposed funding for the recovery and restoration of the gravestones, as well as the creation of a shoreline memorial. Virginia approved $4 million for this project, according to the governor’s office.
“As soon as we learned of the massive undertaking to recover these headstones, we offered the full support of our entire Maryland team,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. “We have no greater responsibility as leaders in a democracy than preserving for future generations the importance of clearly differentiating between right and wrong.”
On Monday, 55 headstones were transferred from Virginia to Maryland, starting the process of returning them to the National Harmony Memorial Park. The grave markers will become part of a one-acre memorial garden honoring the more than 37,00 people buried in the original cemetery.
Graves that are illegible from being worn smooth over time in the water will become part of a living park memorial wall along the shoreline. Boaters will be able to learn about the site from historical markers placed at Caledon State Park.
“Ensuring these grave markers and the memories of those they recognized are treated with dignity and respect is another victory in our battle for historic justice in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Matthew J. Strickler, Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources. “While we cannot undo the harm caused in the past, we can do our best to tell the stories truthfully, and strive to foster better understanding and a new harmony in the present and future.”
Officials from Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. are working with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and the History, Arts, and Science Action Network on this project.
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