Headstones and History: Uncovering the Past and Why It Matters

This July, Eagle Eye Tutoring on MacArthur Blvd. will offer high school and college students a unique opportunity to conduct original historical research on a remarkable but little-studied Washington, DC community.

Together with their students, Garrett Lowe and Tom Duckenfield will uncover some of the hidden history of Georgetown’s African Americans. This community was a vibrant center in the 18th, 19th, and 20th-century historic Port of Georgetown. Comprising about a third of the population, these residents accomplished much and lived rich, interesting lives. In 1848, some of these Georgetowners organized and participated in the largest attempted slave escape in US history. They were also laborers, cooks, coachmen, real estate tycoons; one was president of Georgetown University. Their stories have largely been ignored and forgotten.

Tucked away in a corner of what was known as Herring Hill in Georgetown is the Mt. Zion – Female Union Band Society Cemetery. It’s a Site of Memory associated with the UNESCO Slave Route Project, a National Historic Landmark, and it’s where many of these extraordinary people were buried between 1809 to 1950. Using just their names and dates, Lowe, Duckenfield and their students plan to reconstruct as much of their lives as possible by examining census data, city directories, newspapers, and other primary sources.

Mt. Zion – Female Union Band Society Cemetery

Garrett Lowe, founder of Eagle Eye Tutoring and one of the two researchers spearheading the project, shared his goals for Headstones and History with BlueBird City:

Tell us about the impetus for this project. What inspired you and how does it connect to your personal mission or mission as a company?

Two things inspired me to create this class. The first was the realization that summer plans had collapsed for so many of my students, and I wanted to come up with an activity that would inspire them, be safe, and be of value to the community. The second element was my love of discovering hidden history. I have done that with my own family, piecing together the past of my Irish peasant ancestors. But to do it with this community, the African American community of Georgetown, was really an exciting thought. Their history has been ignored, if not actively obscured, so documenting and testifying to their existence brings a further element of justice.

At Eagle Eye, our goal is to inspire our students to do their best and to grow. We also strive to teach students how to think creatively under pressure. Usually, much of that revolves around preparing for standardized tests. When the pandemic emerged, we thought we should model this kind of flexibility for our students by providing a creative way for them to continue to grow even in the time of Zoom and remote learning.

Give us a snippet of what you have already uncovered or what you hope to.

So far I have discovered a lot of personal stories. I have only done preliminary research, just to make sure that enough documents exist. It’s incredible to see a census form that states that two parents cannot read or write, but their children can. Or to see how one man was a coachman, but then learned how to drive in the 1920s when he was 50 and then drove a cab until his retirement. It’s also interesting to look at how occupations changed as Georgetown evolved from being a port to an industrial center.

What is the end goal for the project and the timeline?

The end goal is to provide the Mt. Zion Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park, Inc. (Mt. Zion-FUBS Foundation) and Mt. Zion Church in Georgetown with a series of biographies of those interred in the cemetery and to provide data that future researchers could use when they examine African American Georgetown. Our last class will be held in Mt. Zion Cemetery, and Lisa Fager, Executive Director of the Mt. Zion-FUBS Foundation, will conduct a libation ceremony before students present their findings near the gravestones of the people they researched. We hope to make this open to the public to raise awareness of the historical and sacred value of a space that is used by many as a place to walk their dogs. Maybe we can get Kojo Nnamdi to attend!

What impact do you hope this will have on students? On the community?

I hope that the students will walk away enriched: knowing how to use historical documents, understanding more deeply a period that many history courses are reluctant to really examine, and also realizing that history is more than battles and laws and famous people. Researching the lives of individual men and women will give them a granular perspective that is rarely achieved outside of graduate school. I also want them to see how African American history is much more than a series of injustices; it is a series of real triumphs in the face of tremendous adversity. I think it’s also important for students to learn how to ask, as they look around their neighborhoods, “what happened here 100 years ago? 200 years ago?” Because what they see now is definitely different than what was happening in the past, even if physically there have been few changes.

On a community level, we will donate all our research to Mt.Zion Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park, Inc. which is attempting to restore the cemetery and to create a living museum.

On a more personal level, I have realized over the past 10 years how much my schools never taught me about the city I grew up in - how history impacted the African American community and what that community was like - because it was not considered to be historically important. For example, slave auctions were held in the basement of the building of what used to be Dean and Deluca. The same building that is still on M St. I never learned about the tremendously courageous attempted slave escape from Washington on The Pearl, which involved at least two of those interred at Mt. Zion. But it’s more than the ugly events. I just learned that two of the tennis greats of the 20th century grew up in Georgetown: Roumania and Margaret Peters. Their ability to play after college was limited because of Jim Crow, but they did play tennis in Rose Park with the great dancer Gene Kelly when he was stationed here. I hope that this will enable students who are not of African descent to better understand what life was actually like for at least this African American community. For those of African descent, I hope it will provide even more evidence that these kinds of stories – the stories of their ancestors - are of critical importance to our city as well as to the nation.

Eagle Eye is currently accepting students who are interested in enrolling in this course and collaborating on behalf of this important project.

To register or learn more, please click here.