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Thousands of tombstones from a Black graveyard established in 1859 have been lost in the muddy river banks of the Potomac River after they were dumped decades ago.

On Monday, Aug. 23, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser attended a ceremony in Virginia’s Caledon State Park where more than 50 of the markers were displayed in a ceremony launching a joint effort to re-consecrate the gravestones and help descendants connect with ancestors represented by the markers.

More than 37,000 Black Americans were buried in Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington, D.C, between 1859 and 1960. Those buried in the cemetery include two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Black Union Army veterans and one of the first Black policemen in Washington.

In 1960, when the land was sold to make way for the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station and other developments, most of the remains were transferred to National Harmony Park in Landover, Maryland. However, the original tombstones were discarded and many new gravesites were left unmarked. When a Virginia farmer saw an ad for free loose stones, he began transporting truckloads of the tombstones to his property and dumping them along a stretch of riverbank to prevent his land from eroding into the Potomac River. Remnants of the stones can still be seen along the river.

“We are committed to righting that wrong,” Bowser said to assembled reporters and other dignitaries and attendees of the event.

About 55 stones will be moved to a dignified resting place at National Harmony and will be part of a memorial garden. Meanwhile, the state of Virginia has contracted with the nonprofit History, Arts, and Science Action Network to track down descendants of people represented by the gravestones.

“Those were people,” Northam said Monday. “They had families who loved them, and to dump their headstones or sell them for some other uses is dehumanizing. And that was part of the goal, perhaps.”

The stones were rediscovered about four years ago when the property changed hands again. Virginia state Sen. Richard Stuart was exploring the newly purchased land with his wife when they discovered the stones.

Some stones that are illegible because they’ve been worn too smooth and those that cannot be removed from the water will become part of a memorial wall along the riverbank. Virginia has approved $4 million for the recovery of the stones and creation of a memorial in Caledon State Park.

Patricia Howard-Chittams was able to touch her ancestor’s headstone for the first time on Monday.

“I don’t get angry, I don’t get mad, you know, because she was here. I’m the sum of her existence, which makes it even better,” she said.

This content was originally published here.

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