When local high school students attending McKinley Tech High School learned about the condition of the Mount Zion and Female Union Band Society Cemetery in Georgetown, they decided to do something to fix it.
The cemetery is the final resting place for between 8,000 and 10,000 people, mostly African-Americans, who lived and worked in D.C. from 1808 to 1950. Lisa Fager, the executive director of the Mount Zion Memorial Park Foundation, is working to turn the cemetery into a memorial park so that those buried there will not be forgotten.
“It’s not being honored; it’s sacred ground,” Fager said. “These people worked for all the people who established this country, congressional members. They built the buildings, and it just feels so sad we have not been able to say their names or remember them.”
McKinley Tech history teacher Alysha Butler helped her students research the historic cemetery. It was part of the underground railroad, and runaway slaves sometimes took refuge in a burial crypt on the premises.
When the students saw the condition of the cemetery, they wanted to take action.
“It makes me feel distraught, because the graveyard is ruined and run down, and it has to do with my history and African-American history, and it’s not cleaned up,” said Laila Holsendorff, a ninth-grader at McKinley Tech.
Students also learned the history of the mostly white, well-cared for cemetery right next to the African-American cemetery.
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The students put on work gloves and filled trash bags with debris and weeds, as a way to preserve and pay respect to the past.
“I feel kind of a connection to these people,” said eleventh-grader Caylan Alexander. “Because they’re black like me and they lived here in way harder times.”
"I think it shows a little bit about how our society treats our history today," Holsendorff said.