9th December 2023
Possible African-American Burials Unearthed in Washington, D.C.
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Possible African-American Burials Unearthed in Washington, D.C.

Last week, workers who were renovating the basement of a townhouse in Georgetown discovered something a bit more surprising than water damage or outdated plumbing: human remains.

The police were called, and they referred the matter to the city’s official archaeologist, Ruth Trocolli. The home, located at 3317 Q Street NW, became an excavation site, with four human skeletons identified. The skeletons looked to be from the 1830s, Trocolli told the Georgetowner, which first reported the discovery.

Historians say there’s history right beneath our feet in Georgetown.
Historians say there’s history right beneath our feet in Georgetown.

Trocolli and her team believe the remains are part of an unrecorded 19th-century burial ground spanning multiple properties on the block, according to D.C. Office of Planning director Andrew Trueblood.

“As with previous practice, the remains will be loaned to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History Anthropology Department and analyzed against other remains found at this burial ground,” he tells DCist in a statement. (Trocolli works for the planning office.)

This isn’t the first time human remains were unearthed on the 3300 blocks of Q Street NW. The discovery echoes a similar case from 15 years ago when masonry workers came across joints, ribs, and a jaw with teeth still intact in another house on the street. “I would not be surprised at all if there are a lot more bodies buried somewhere on this block,” the occupant of the house told the Washington Post at the time. She also said her neighbor had found an old tombstone on their roof in 1957.

Volta Park, located across the street from these homes, is the site of the old Presbyterian Burying Ground, a historic 19th and a 20th-century cemetery where Revolutionary War soldiers, former mayors, and other notable Washingtonians were buried.

The northern edge of the burial grounds was reserved for black Washingtonians, says Jerry McCoy, a special collections librarian who works in D.C. Public Library’s Washingtoniana Collection.

The site has since been partially developed, like other places in the country where black graveyards became construction sites. (Richmond University recently discovered evidence of a slave burial ground under its campus, and in 2019, a high school in Tampa, Florida, found 145 coffins possibly belonging to a long-lost black cemetery.)

To McCoy, the newly discovered remains pose an interesting possibility: They might be part of the gravesite of Yarrow Mamout, an enslaved man kidnapped from West Africa who lived in Georgetown during the 19th century.

After being freed at 60, Mamout became a successful investor and was considered one of the most skilled swimmers of the Potomac River at the time.

“The dreamer in me kind of hopes that maybe they’ll be able to do DNA testing and confirm one way or the other if any of these remains are indeed Yarrow,” McCoy says in an interview. “But that said, I’m convinced that there are probably hundreds of bodies still buried, if not in the vicinity of where the [Volta] playground is today, then underneath the 3300 block pavement of Q Street.”

“Old Yarrow” 1822 portrait by James Alexander Simpson, which is on display in the Peabody Room at the Georgetown Branch Library.
“Old Yarrow” 1822 portrait by James Alexander Simpson, which is on display in the Peabody Room at the Georgetown Branch Library.

Mamout’s property at 3324 Dent Place NW was just around the block from the Q Street NW site. Mamout, a devout Muslim, was known to pray in his garden, facing Mecca, the sacred Islamic city. Historian and lawyer James H. Johnston says the garden might have also been Mamout’s burial site: 3317 Q Street NW, a few yards from his house, could be a match.

Additionally, the graves found in recent years could have been part of a graveyard for black Washingtonians that predates the Presbyterian cemetery across the street, Johnston says.

“We don’t know where any of the black people in early Georgetown were buried,” he says. “I think people just generally don’t know much about the black community that lived on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue … There are all these other questions that this could help answer about the history of black Georgetown.”

Johnston wrote a 2012 book on Mamout and his descendants and also led a dig for Mamout’s remains in 2015. He says Charles Willson Peale, who painted a portrait of Mamout now hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, likely wrote Mamout’s obituary in 1823, which mentioned Mamout being buried in the garden where he prayed.

The Smithsonian’s anthropology division has the technology available to identify whether the skeletons belong to decedents of Africa, according to Johnston, and pairing the skeletons with his portraits could identify them as Mamout’s.

McCoy says over the past two decades, D.C. police have visited him twice before with cases of discovered remains. The new skeletons could bring to 10 the total number of remains of people of African descent found in the area since 2005.

“Literally history under people’s feet,” he says.