Q St. Skeletal Remains: Unanswered Questions
By December 3, 2020 One Comment 1184•
On the 3300 block of Q Street NW, assorted human skeletal remains of African Americans have been unearthed beneath Georgetown residents’ homes with curious frequency — in 2005, in 2012 and now again in 2020. The Metropolitan Police Department and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner have ruled out foul play. However, the District’s Historic Preservation Office, forensics experts from the National Museum of Natural History’s anthropology department and local historians are grappling with how to interpret the findings.
The pandemic shutdown and heightened awareness of Georgetown’s diverse racial history in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement have also influenced how experts are forming their hypotheses.
The slim possibility that some of the buried remains could be those of Yarrow Mamout (1736-1823), one of Georgetown’s most historically significant African American residents, only adds to the intrigue. A learned West African Muslim, Yarrow (his surname) owned a home at 3324 Dent Place — a stop on the District’s African American Heritage Trail — adjacent to the site of the most recent burial excavations at 3317 Q St. NW. Enslaved for 44 years, Yarrow eventually purchased his freedom and became a noted financier here.
In 2005, James H. Johnston, author of “From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family,” petitioned the Old Georgetown Board to require an archaeological study of Yarrow’s property before construction on the site. After Washington Post columnist Colbert King wrote favorably about Johnston’s efforts, District archeologists performed digs in the area. Though Yarrow’s remains were not discovered, Johnson recalls, the survey collected “something like 80 bags of artifacts” from the site.
Johnston believes Yarrow’s remains could still be found in the neighborhood, though he thinks it unlikely they would be among the most recent findings, he told The Georgetowner. Over 10 feet of soil were landscaped away from the area over time, he said. Recently, Johnston submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Museum of Natural History to obtain the forensic analysis of the remains found at 3317 Q St. NW, but he has not yet been granted the information.
“What I really want is the Smithsonian reports,” Johnson said, “because that would tell me — especially for the four bodies found this year — whether they were also African American, as well as their ages and genders. I mean, obviously, if they found an 83-year-old man who grew up in Africa, it’s probably Yarrow Mamout, but I don’t think that’s what they found.”
“Where were Blacks being buried in Georgetown?” Johnston asked in the course of his research on Yarrow. Johnston — who grew increasingly interested in the history of Black Georgetown and the tragic loss of African American cemeteries and grave sites in the District — theorizes that the Q Street remains of African Americans found in recent years came from the burial grounds of an historically Black Presbyterian church, then known as the Market Street Chapel. Today, the church is a private home at 1552 33rd St. NW.
In his article “Where Did Every Body Go? The Mystery of Q Street Burials and Cemeteries of Early Georgetown,” Johnston writes that findings of African American remains have been going on near Q Street since the 19th century. “The macabre scene of unearthing human remains in people’s yards has been playing out [there] for 154 years,” he wrote. “Between thirty and forty skeletons have been reported found over time … the true explanation seems to be that this was [an] African American burying ground … before being forgotten, as so often has been the case with Georgetown’s Black History.”
Johnston just published an article in the Muslim World Journal reporting that at least 34 obituaries for Yarrow were written “up and down the east coast when he died.” “In Georgetown,” he said, “there were a number of free blacks who were very talented people who were very well known in their day.” However, he said, “Black history sort of got erased in Georgetown.”
Local historian Carlton Fletcher, curator of the Glover Park History website, believes that Johnston’s research is a needed corrective to what he calls the “coaches and crinoline” view of Georgetown history. “I don’t even remotely have to spell out what the resonance of a story of a Black burial ground disappearing would be. That would be self-evident,” he said. “However, I’m looking forward to seeing what Jim [Johnston] comes up with and I assume he’s going to be making the best case and lining up the best evidence for it.”
Meanwhile, District Archaeologist Ruth Trocolli is testing two different hypotheses about the African American remains found on Q Street this year. She said she has discovered ample documentary evidence indicating that the remains might have come from deceased victims of the cholera pandemic that swept through the nation’s capital in 1832. Johnston is not convinced that the primary sources indicate that the remains are from this event. But Trocolli concurs with Johnston’s argument that the remains were probably interred on historic Black burial grounds.
“We have some documentary evidence that, since this burial ground was available during the 1832 cholera pandemic, they were very hard-pressed for places to bury cholera victims,” Trocolli told The Georgetowner. “They were never able to get a good count for the actual numbers because many people died at home and they just quickly buried them wherever they found burial grounds … And, it’s been interesting because when you look at the literature … they pretty much say they’re never going to know exactly how many people died. Sounds familiar, right? … The parallels to today’s pandemic are, I have to say, staggering.”
At the most recent virtual meeting of the annual DC History Conference in mid-November, Trocolli’s office presented a poster on Instagram interpreting the Q Street findings. “Deadly Pandemic Strikes DC, Spreads Quickly, Infecting Many,” the introduction begins. “Municipal records are sparse but local newspapers, letters, and diaries offer images of widespread suffering. Immigrant laborers … and the Black community were hardest hit … Human remains have been repeatedly identified along the 3300 block of Q St., Georgetown, in yards and under houses. No records have yet been found naming this cemetery … One working hypothesis is that this was an African American burying ground, serving the free and possibly enslaved community. Documentary evidence indicates that the victims of the 1832 pandemic could also be present. Newspaper accounts specifically mention the use of this area for cholera victims.”
Until the COVID-19 pandemic lifts, however, Trocolli and her team, working with Smithsonian forensic specialists, will not be able to complete their analysis. “So we’re dealing with the COVID emergency,” she recalls, “and while we were able to do the archaeology and help the homeowner [at 3317 Q St. NW] by removing the human remains … we haven’t been able to do any analysis since the project finished. We have a graduate student from American University who’s going to be doing dissertation research on this and it’s going to be an amazing project. But nothing has started yet, because nothing can. The labs are closed. We’re all teleworking … However, we were able to remove a number of the burials in block excavations where you take them out without excavating them, keeping them in the dirt matrix they’re in. It’s very fragile.”
Once Trocolli and her team can return to the lab, they are hoping to test the block excavations for archaeological evidence of hasty pandemic burials during a pandemic. What shapes are the burial shafts? Will the clay-rich soil have eroded the materials? Is there lime or chemical disinfectant in the soil? Are there signs of coffins and formal clothing? Can stomach contents be analyzed?
For Trocolli, as well as for Johnston and Fletcher — all of whom are white — issues of social justice surrounding historic Black burials in Georgetown are vitally important for the public to understand. She is hoping that Congress passes legislation protecting African American burial sites nationwide, as it has done to protect Native American remains.
“It’s a very sensitive subject right now in terms of disenfranchisement and social justice, as well as issues in Black Lives Matter,” Trocolli said. “There are just a whole raft of issues.” Descendants will have to be located and asked to give input on how to handle the remains respectfully, she emphasized. “We don’t own this project,” she said. “This project will belong to the people.”