Project Proposal: DC’s Lost Cemeteries

Washington DC’s history is plagued with the cloud of gentrification. From the massive SW Urban renewal project to the more recent developments in Chinatown, the urban ;landscape has undergone massive changes that have altered entire neighborhoods and populations of people in the process. Gentrification is its own can of worms and a debate for another project. Although the impacts and urban renewal projects in the District have been well documented and researched, for the most part, one aspect has flown under the radar of researchers: cemeteries.

Cemeteries can tell us amazing things about the population that lived in the area: the predominant religion, ethnicity, race, and class of the individuals (that can be determined by the size and how elaborate the headstone is). They give us a view into the past without being overtly historical in the traditional sense. That is one of the more interesting parts of a cemetery!

For this project, I am proposing a digital mapping project using Historypin, Google Maps, or a similar tool to show where the cemeteries of DC used to be. Each pin would have the name, picture, and brief history of the cemetery. When was it founded? By whom? Who is buried there? Who owned the cemetery? When was it destroyed? What happened to the land/bodies once it was slated for removal? Those types of questions can guide researchers to other questions based on the findings. Where there any cemeteries removed for racial or religious reasons? Was there a trend of removing a particular type of cemetery? Etc. The answers to those questions combined with seeing where the cemeteries used to be based on the digital mapping will allow users to get a better understanding of a lesser thought of just how destructive gentrification can be.

As of now, it appears to me that there has been little to no research done on this topic specifically. I would need to create my own database in essence to accomplish this project and do it justice. That would involve hitting the archives and the DC city records to get an idea of older maps and layouts of the city prior to urban renewal.

Now, I have not landed on a time frame as of yet. I will have to see what the records say. I could expand it to include cemeteries that were destroyed not due to urban renewal. Again, I have not made up my mind on that yet.

I think this project provides a great opportunity to see the history of the city through a unique lens and perspective that incorporates both archival research, digital history, and to an extent, community history as well. All things that Public Historians need to keep in mind when working on and framing a project.

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