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Eighty-six-year-old Washingtonian Vivian Ashton walks up a short access road and slowly picks her way through a cluster of grave sites at Woodlawn Cemetery in Southeast. Although many of the tombstones are obscured by weeds, Ashton knows by heart the black heroes who rest under her feet. There’s Blanche K. Bruce, the first African-American to be elected to the U.S. Senate, John R. Francis, a renowned surgeon and civic leader, John Mercer Langston, the first dean of Howard University and the first black Virginia congressman and foreign diplomat, and Lillian Evanti, the first internationally renowned black opera diva. A national historic landmark, the 19th-century cemetery was the first in Washington to unite blacks with other races in death. “Arabs are buried here; Russians, Germans, Chinese, Jews, Muslims,” says Ashton.

The 23-acre cemetery that rises from Benning Road hasn’t always shown them their due respect, however; at times the rolling plot has looked more like a brush preserve than a burial ground. Six-foot weeds, volunteer willows, oaks, pines, and unruly English ivy swallowed epitaphs in a jumble of green and brown. The bramble masked undocumented reinterments that have spread tombstones around the lot like buckshot. Over the years the cemetery has become a resting place for nonhuman remains—burned-out cars, asphalt shingles, mattresses, tires, refrigerators, stoves, and other appliances.

But Ashton has found an ally in her battle to reclaim the cemetery: AmeriCorps, a federally funded community service program. Armed with buzz saws, weed-whackers, shovels, and clippers, 25 young AmeriCorps workers last month tore into a hefty assignment: to clear the vegetation and restore burial markers to their rightful coordinates. For the most part, the kids seemed to have no idea what they were up against. “They gave us maps,” deadpanned one worker.

Nonetheless, after a week of labor, the AmeriCorps crew has fixed up the cemetery’s most prominent section, which hosts the remains of Francis and Langston. Volunteers from Georgetown University, George Mason University, and community groups laid the groundwork over the summer and early fall, clearing out much of the heavy debris. The Metropolitan Police Department took care of the abandoned vehicles.

“It’s a wonderful thing you’re doing,” says Ashton, stopping to tell the workers a windy tale about the cemetery. Most of them quickly tune her out, and several pull out cigarettes. Since the 1930s, champions of the cemetery have made similar efforts, but somehow the vandals, illegal dumpers, and the forces of entropy have managed to outpace the do-gooders. In recent decades, the National Guard, the D.C. Service Corps, and assorted community volunteers have all chipped in, only to have the weeds again take control. The efforts of AmeriCorps, which was created in 1993 under a Clinton administration jobs initiative and will likely fold after the next round of federal budget talks, will likely be buried along with all the other good intentions at Woodlawn.

Woodlawn has gone to seed in part because burial sites were sold without establishing a maintenance fund. By 1930, the cemetery had become an overgrown mess, and proposals to rehabilitate it never got off the ground. The neglect worsened in the ’40s and ’50s, as all the cemetery’s founding officers died off. They left the grounds in the money-grubbing hands of J.G. Hughes, a hustler who appeared determined to store all of dead Washington in his cemetery.

A June 1957 probe by the D.C. Health Department exposed just how far Hughes would go to make room for coffins. Some of them, workers found, were a mere 18 inches below the surface. Other sites and lots were caving in, and many were incorrectly marked or not marked at all. In addition, the health department reported that “rough boxes were jammed right next to each other,” according to a Daily News account. In court, Hughes blamed the ill-positioned corpses on soil erosion.

Shallow and crowded graves were not the only problems. D.C. historian Paul Sluby wrote that between 1898 and 1912 the cemetery failed to keep lot records, and similar lapses were to follow. Over the years, thousands of graves were moved to Woodlawn from other cemeteries with little attention paid to marking them. Sites were haphazardly laid out and marked from 1951 to 1971, when 11,000 people were interred, documents reveal. In recent decades, vandals and renovators alike have dislodged and toppled sundry memorials and monuments.

The Woodlawn freak show intensified in the 1960s, when cemetery entrepreneur Louis H. Bell bought up large portions of the plot. When Bell began trying to tuck away coffins in areas that were reportedly empty, he found hordes of unmarked graves. Bell tried to shoehorn coffins into the few fallow spots remaining, but he quickly lost interest in maintaining the cemetery.

After the health department issued a series of cleanup notices to Bell in the late ’60s, Bell sold his interest for $1 to other plot owners, claiming he had sustained a $70,000 hit on the venture.

Ashton has long been the lone voice in defense of the city’s black cemeteries. Her cemetery activism dates back to the late 1970s, when she learned of a scam that Bell had perpetrated at the Columbian Harmony Cemetery on Rhode Island Avenue NE. Bell sold the cemetery to the city for $3.4 million and agreed to move all grave sites to make way for a development project. However, he failed to make good on the pledge, forcing the city to carry out the mass disinterments.

Determined to save Woodlawn from Harmony’s fate, Ashton spearheaded a successful crusade to have the cemetery declared a historical landmark and to be included in the national register of historic places, a designation the National Park Service is now finalizing.

The designation has stopped the current management company, which was formed with the city’s blessing, from selling the cemetery to developers—precisely what Ashton fears. Before the designation became official, management attempted to unload a portion of the cemetery for $1.4 million in cash. The transaction would have entailed the disinterment of thousands of graves’ worth of remains. In an appeal to clear the way for the sale, cemetery management asked the Office of D.C. Historic Preservation to reject the historic designation request because of the “cemetery’s inability to continue unless a portion of the grounds are sold.”

When it came to determining the historic value of the cemetery, says Stephen J. Raiche, chief of the historic preservation office at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, “there were legitimate questions as to what was left.” Even though Ashton pushed for the designation, the current management now takes full credit for the cemetery’s historic status and insists that it’s “absolutely false” that it ever opposed the move. “That’s totally in error. We started the process,” claims George Dines, president of the management association. “Ashton hasn’t lifted a finger to clean up the cemetery,” he says.

Dines says he has abandoned all plans to sell any portion of the cemetery. Although the last interment took place in the mid-’80s, Dines contends there are still available sites in the cemetery, and someday he would like to build a mausoleum to take cremains.

But sale proposals for Woodlawn are only the most recent flashpoint in Ashton’s long-running conflict with cemetery management. Ashton first bumped heads with management in the early ’80s for allowing burials to resume at the graveyard. The city put the kibosh on burials twice before—in the ’50s and in the early ’70s—and stipulated that no more grave sites be sold.

Also, Ashton has raised concerns over the cemetery management’s fund-raising campaigns. In the name of restoration, management has sold historic calendars and dinners, collected dues, and hosted trips to Atlantic City and the like, but the proceeds have largely gone unaccounted for, she says. Moses Manigan, secretary of the management association, says he is “in the process” of filing appropriate reports and charges that Ashton alleges improprieties because she “wants publicity for herself.”

Disputes aside, neither Ashton nor cemetery management can do much for people like Ellsworth Jackson, a Northeast resident who used to place flowers on the Woodlawn graves of his parents every year. Until their tombstones were mysteriously removed. Then Jackson did his best to place the flowers in the general location of his parents’ resting place. “Last time, I just put the flowers on top of the weeds,” he says.—Julie Wakefield