We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
When real estate moguls Maurice and Jacob Shapiro got their hands on a small strip of land between Calvert Street and Adams Mill Road, they thought they had struck gold. It was the early 1940s, and the Shapiros, who ran Shapiro Inc., had acquired a precious bit of undeveloped land in Adams Morgan. The site also offered a commanding view of the National Zoo’s wooded back yard and Rock Creek Park. The brothers planned to erect twin apartment high-rises on the site. But when they finally broke ground in 1959, they found calcium, not gold.
The bulldozers were digging up the remnants of a 19th-century cemetery for African-Americans and Quakers. Either believing most of the bodies had already been disinterred or not caring either way, Shapiro Inc. had decided to build its dream complex directly on top of a graveyard. In violation of District law, the company continued unearthing skulls, bones, and caskets so that construction could proceed. “I saw a skull and the old metal casket handles,” said one local interviewed by the Washington Daily News at the time. “I pointed it out to the bulldozer operator, and he said, ‘Sure as the dickens.’ But the next day they went right on.”
Shapiro Inc.managed to keep its discovery quiet for about a month, until the Board of Health was contacted and began supervising the disinterments. Lured by the macabre thrill of exhumation, kids flocked to the site, taking home bones and pieces of caskets as toys and souvenirs. Fifteen-year-old Eddie Stuart posed for a picture in the Washington Daily News holding up a skull and a thigh bone. Afterward he offered the skull to one of Shapiro’s workers. “I don’t need it,” he told the worker. “I’ve got four more at home.”
Although the Shapiros’ apartments were never built, the cemetery that they trampled has not seen its final debasement. The National Zoo has owned a strip of it since the late 19th century and for years used it to house dumpsters, which were poorly maintained and overrun with rats. Succumbing to neighborhood protests, zoo officials removed the dumpsters but came up with an equally unappealing land-use proposal: turning the strip into a compost heap.
Offended by the zoo’s indifference toward history and the prospect of elephant dung seeping into the park, residents recently halted the zoo’s plans and demanded a historical study. The zoo complied, producing a study that reached no conclusions and offered no recommendations. A growing constituency of neighborhood activists and African-American scholars is taking issue with the zoo’s cavalier attitude toward the remains that still remain.
Eileen Crawford has lived on Calvert Street since the late ’70s. A former academic who specializes in African history, Crawford says the zoo conflict is a matter of respect. “If this land had interred [in it] the bodies of some other ethnic group,” says Crawford, “there would be no doubt about what must be done. The proper studies would have been undertaken. But thus far all we’ve seen is foot-dragging.”
To fight the dumpsters and to prevent the mulching facility from being built on the graveyard, Crawford and neighborhood resident Eddie Becker formed the Ad Hoc Committee to Save Holt House and the African-American Cemetery. Holt House is the former home of 19th-century miller George Johnson and was at one point owned by John Quincy Adams. The home also sits on property now owned by the zoo. The people taking on the current plan are finding out that zoo officials know more about tending animals than looking after the concerns of the humans that live near the property.
“I didn’t know anything about the building. I didn’t know anything about the grave site. I just wanted them to move the dumpsters,” says Becker. “They acted as if there wasn’t anything anybody could do to do that. It was like, ‘Well, we’re the zoo, and we can do whatever we want, and there’s no federal law that affects us.’”
When the zoo conducted its historical research, it did no excavating and relied on its archives to determine whether bodies were still in the ground. The report, activists say, provides justification for just about any course of action. “They’re supposed to draw some conclusions and make some recommendation,” says Becker. “[The report is] just a collection of documents.”
Zoo officials and neighbors do agree on the events that led up to the recent fracas: In 1890, the zoo purchased a plot of land from the Colored Benevolent Association, a church group that had originally bought the land from John Quincy Adams’ son. Directly adjacent to that land was a graveyard where Quakers, African-American slaves, and possibly Native Americans were buried. The zoo wanted to place a buffer between itself and the encroaching development that was moving in from Calvert Street, so it paid the association $3,000 for 1.7 acres of the cemetery and for the disinterment of any bodies. The zoo’s archives show that a notice was given saying that all of the bodies had been disinterred by the association.
That’s where the common ground ends. Crawford and Becker point out that as late as 1963, zoo officials were under the impression that there were still bodies on their land. “It was called to my attention,” wrote then-zoo director T.H. Reed in a memo, “that there had been a cemetery in the area where we planned to place the Property Yard….There is reason to suspect that, if there were burials on the zoo grounds, the bodies have not been removed.” In the summary of their historical survey, zoo officials dismiss Reed’s note: “It would seem that Reed was unaware of the 1890 document reporting that the remains buried…had all been removed.”
Neighborhood resident Frank Graves, a retired scientist who has done extensive research on the former graveyard, notes that disinterment is anything but an exact science. “There is a high probability that at least the digit of somebody’s finger is still there,” says Graves.
Zoo spokesman Robert Hoage says the zoo intends to do archaeological research and a “historical structures report” to determine whether any bodies remain in the ground. But archaeological research requires money, a commodity in short supply at the zoo. The zoo is now seeking funding for the project, says Hoage. “Until we have that historic structures report, we don’t know our options,” he explains.
In the meantime, the land in dispute will lie undisturbed. “That area has been returned to a natural state,” says Hoage. “There are no plans to do anything with that 1.7 acres.” And the zoo would have scrapped the compost proposal, says Hoage, if only it had known better. “The zoo did not know the history of that area very well,” says Hoage. “I think had the history of the area been known, that site would never have been considered.”
The do-nothing approach should have pacified the local activists, but it hasn’t. “They don’t do anything until there’s been a considerable bit of conversation,” says Crawford. “Their position is that, ‘We’ll undertake an archaeological survey when we get the money from Congress, and then we’ll give you a report.’ We say that’s not the way the process works. If there is a cemetery and there are remains, then the community should be part of the planning.”
But when it comes to community interface, the zoo has followed the control board model. When zoo officials completed their 700-page study, they refused to allow it to be removed from their offices and instead circulated a five-page summary. Hoage says that as of last Friday, the study would be placed in a nearby library. “There’s been very little communication,” says Adams Morgan advisory neighborhood commission chairman Todd Mosley. “Everything has to be pulled out of them like you’re pulling a tooth.”
The activists seek nothing short of commemoration of the graveyard as a sacred ground. Crawford, Graves, and Becker favor installing a plaque or other commemorative device to explain the importance of the site. Graves, however, breaks with the others over researching the remains. “It’s like debating how many angels can fit on the head of a pin,” says Graves. “We can debate this all day. But what are you prepared to do about it?”
For now, the zoo isn’t prepared to do much more than wait for funding and promise an archaeological survey—a posture that doesn’t surprise Crawford: “They’d rather…close their eyes and say it doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t make it go away.”