When it comes to United States history, not all sites are created equal. White Americans have a tendency to focus on the most flattering aspects of our history while pushing aside the things that remind us of our country’s often problematic past. Mount Zion Cemetery in historic Georgetown is a reminder of what the waterfront area used to be — a haven for Black communities in Washington, D.C.
Mount Zion Cemetery, located at 2501 Mill Road NW, sits just east of the opulent Dumbarton House. Dating back to 1808, Mount Zion initially served as a burial ground for white Methodist parishioners and their enslaved people. It was bought in 1814 by a Black congregation, becoming Mount Zion United Methodist Church, the oldest known Black church in the District. The cemetery served the District’s growing Black population but remained segregated from white burial grounds such as the nearby Oak Hill Cemetery.
Mount Zion is not the only vestige of Georgetown’s Black community. Black churches such as First Baptist Church at 2624 Dumbarton St. NW and Jerusalem Baptist Church at 2600 P St. NW, also served as pillars of the Black community, along with Monticello House at 3300 M St. NW, a meeting spot for Black social clubs. Black-owned businesses like The Blue Mouse Theater also made Georgetown a hub for Black economic triumph in the District.
While Mount Zion Cemetery remains in Georgetown to this day, much of the Black community that resided in the neighborhood has not. Georgetown, which at one point was 50% Black, experienced gentrification beginning in the mid-20th century. In a development not uncommon for D.C., post-World War II discriminatory laws such as the Old Georgetown Act of 1950 made it difficult for Black residents to remain in the area.
Today, Georgetown is nearly 75% white and as such feels separated from the Black culture integral to the rest of the city.
Lisa Fager, executive director of the Mount Zion / Female Union Band Historic Park Foundation, and Patrick Tisdale, volunteer and volunteer activity coordinator, have sought to restore the grounds of this historic burial site and reintroduce this slice of Georgetown’s history through public events.
“When you touch the stones of the people who were laid to rest there, you begin to connect with what their lives were about and the many great things they did,” Tisdale told The Hoya.
The story of Mount Zion and Black Georgetown reflects what many D.C. residents still witness today. The District has been experiencing a housing crisis, fueled by an influx of white residents into historically Black neighborhoods due to gentrification. U Street, once nicknamed “Black Broadway” has been gentrifying rapidly, with apartments in the area now going for upwards of $2,500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.
Anacostia in Ward 8, once home to Frederick Douglas, has also experienced gentrification with new apartment complexes popping up in the neighborhood daily. Due to this increase in gentrification, Prince George’s County in Maryland has seen a massive influx of displaced Black D.C. residents, who have been left behind in the city’s quest to develop and progress.
Having grown up in D.C., I’ve observed these changes myself, and I feel that the city is at an inflection point in its history. Addressing issues of inequality in D.C. will require effort on all fronts, and activism in this arena is growing stronger by the day. Community organizers like Ronald Moten, who goes by @ronaldmoten on Instagram, and Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, who goes by @yaddiya, are raising awareness around ownership and equity in D.C., critical topics that need to be discussed.
As students attending a university in the Georgetown neighborhood, it is essential that we do not ignore our second home’s history. Visiting Mount Zion Cemetery, only a couple of blocks from campus, is a great place to start.
Nikhil Nelson is a first-year in the MSB. D.C.’s Hidden History appears online and in print every other week.