Recently, while listening to a genealogy program on Youtube called BlackProGen Live about free people of color (FPOC), the host, Nika Smith asked the panel about resources for researching these families. I immediately thought about a book that I had read by African American historian, Dr. Carter G. Woodson (b.1875- d.1950). I jumped over to Wikipedia (yes, over there) to get the name of the book and saw what I thought was an odd reference to Suitland, Maryland! Wait, what?
Indeed, the father of Black History month and author of many books on black history, Dr. Carter G. Woodson , had been interred at one of Suitland’s three cemeteries, The Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Perhaps I am the last to know, but this was an amazing discovery for me!
I honestly did not believe it so I jumped over to Find A Grave and looked it up and sure enough some one had created a profile, taken a picture of the headstone, and provided additional information. How did this famous African American come to be buried in this sleepy east side suburb of Washington DC? While I rarely give thought to where famous people are buried, I never thought it would be here in this quiet, unassuming, unincorporated, east side, inner beltway community called Suitland in Prince Georges County in Maryland.
Before I came to reside in Suitland with my parents in the late 70’s, it was home to the the Suitland Federal Center which included the U.S. Census Bureau, NOAA, Smithsonian Museum, Support Center, National Maritime Intelligence Center, Office of Naval Intelligence, and more recently, the Bureau of Economic Analysis. It borders the District of Columbia to the west, joint base Andrews, Morningside, and Camp Springs to the east, District and Capitol Heights to the north, and Temple Hills and Hillcrest to the south.
Suitland was once home to Native Americans, farmers and plantation owners of European descent, free persons of color, and of course enslaved and free African Americans. The demographics of home ownership really began to change in the late sixties as more families of Africans descent moved out of the district after the 1968 riots. I have also previously been a proud home owner in this community, however during that time I noticed that there were some that looked down upon this side of town. Like so many “east side communities” across our nation, Suitland and surrounding communities east of Washington D.C. have been seen as the “lesser sister” to other suburban counties that border our nation’s capital and to communities outside of the Capital beltway. A final “frontier” of sorts to commercial, government, and retail establishments who finally decided that Prince Georges County’s land and labor force was fit to sustain their agencies and businesses. And even though we more recently became home to the National Harbor with a number of flagship establishments, some residents are still waiting for a technology corridor to emerge! Many who once lived here in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s have since “moved up” and out to other communities that they considered more desirable leaving behind the historical gems and treasures like the cemeteries of this community!
Upon learning that Dr. Carter G. Woodson was buried in Suitland, I ran over to the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery to find his grave site. It was my understanding, that historically, the cemeteries( Washington National and Lincoln Memorial) on the south side of Suitland Road were for blacks and on the north side of the road (Cedar Hill) was for whites. With it’s hilly terrain and beautiful scenic vistas, Lincoln Memorial has a very different look and feel from other cemeteries I have visited. It is a lovely, well maintained cemetery with many headstones and markers and reflects the historically solid middle class African American community in and around Washington D.C. The cemetery staff of Lincoln Memorial was very kind, helped me to locate the grave site, and provided me a gold mine of information about other notables who were buried at the cemetery. The notables include these individuals and many others:
Dr. Modecai Johnson (President of Howard University)
Dr. Charles Drew (Inventor Blood Plasma Storage)
Van McCoy (Recording Artist)
Nannie Helen Burroughs (Educator and Civil Right Leader)
Judge William Hastie (First African American Federal Judge)
Mary Church Terrell (Educator ad first African American Woman DC Board of Education)
Ralph Waldo “Petey” Green (Activist, television and radio talk show host)
Len Bias (University of Maryland all-America basketball player)
O.K, so let me get back Dr. Woodson, who by the way was the “father” of Black History Week which was later expanded to the Black History Month that we observe present day. He was a long time resident of the District of Columbia he lived at 1538 9th Street NW, in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. for thirty years. His house is owned by the National Park Service and is on the register of historic places. So this may be one reason why he is buried close to D.C.
Oh and the book about free persons of color that I mentioned at the outset of this post:
- Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830, Together With a Brief Treatment of the Free Negro (1925)