A plaque memorializes unknown and enslaved people buried at  Washington, DC's historic Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Honoring the Past A plaque memorializes unknown and enslaved people buried at Washington, DC's historic Mount Olivet Cemetery. © Matt Kane / TNC

Stories in Maryland/DC

Celebrating Family

A community-designed greenspace provides the setting for a family to reflect on the legacy of their enslaved ancestors.

Matt Kane Senior Media Relations Manager

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On a particularly bright Sunday in August, descendants of freedmen John and Arabella Weems gathered at Washington, D.C.'s historic Mount Olivet Cemetery to reflect on the legacy of their once enslaved ancestors and rejoice in the new family connections they had made.

The gathering was part of a full weekend of events organized by Gayle George, a local writer and publisher, to make the story of John and Arabella Weems come alive for attendees. 

If you carry a name and you don’t know anybody in your family—what does that mean? To be able to connect with the story and other people that are descendants is a powerful thing.

Weems Descendant, Event Organizer
A member of the extended Weems family ties a prayer ribbon to a tree at Mount Olivet Cemetery during a celebration of the legacy of freedmen John and Arabella Weems.
Celebrating Family A member of the extended Weems family ties a prayer ribbon to a tree at Mount Olivet Cemetery during a celebration of the legacy of freedmen John and Arabella Weems. © Matt Kane / TNC

Arabella and John Weems’ determination to escape captivity and ensure that each of their children was freed raised public awareness at the time to the plight of fugitive slave families. Their efforts galvanized the financial and moral support of an international community of abolitionists committed to ensuring the family’s freedom, and forged a loose network of anti-slavery sympathizers into an efficient leg of the Underground Railroad between Washington, D.C., and Ontario, Canada. 

Despite the notoriety they gained and their incredible success in finally becoming free, John and Arabella Weems were laid to rest in the large area of Mt. Olivet containing many unmarked graves—including those of enslaved people.  That same area was recently memorialized with a new Community-Designed Greenspace (CDG) spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy and Nature Sacred.

The August gathering was the first intentional convening of all known family members from Canada and around the United States, five generations after John and Arabella, so Gayle dubbed it “the happiest hour.”

As attendees tied prayer ribbons to trees, Gayle spoke about what the weekend and the new green space meant to her.

"I began doing some research after the documentary Railroad Ties came out.  It revealed some names of our ancestors in the DC [area] dating back to the 1800s. I found out that John and Arabella Weems are buried here at Mt. Olivet in unmarked graves.  To me, that didn’t feel right.  I felt like they should be acknowledged in some kind of way.  And so, I started working on a way to acknowledge them.

The whole weekend became about making connections with other descendants and learning the history, really.  Having a deeper appreciation of the experience of the Weems, and what their journey was to liberation.  And also finding each other. People may have had certain names or surnames but didn’t really know how they connected to the story and to each other, so we’ve been able to build out this massive tree and link our family history through six, seven generations in D.C.

The event was meant to create these experiences and opportunities to interact.  Not scripted or really formalized, but to see what unfolds, because there’s a lot of emotions and reconciliation that’s happening.  Even within yourself.  If you carry a name and you don’t know anybody in your family—what does that mean?  To be able to connect with the story and other people that are descendants is a powerful thing.  It’s something you can’t script or put a shape around. You just create the space for it and allow for whatever the experience will be to come forward.

Initially, the idea of us getting together was going to be to lay stones on our ancestors’ graves.  This [memorial green space] kind of serves as a surrogate for that... This is a place that acknowledges those people that are buried here.  And we know that our ancestors are buried here.  I call it a sacred space."

Descendants of freedmen John and Arabella Weems gather at Mt. Olivet Cemetery to honor the legacy of their ancestors, August 9, 2019.
Celebrating Family Descendants of freedmen John and Arabella Weems gather at Mt. Olivet Cemetery to honor the legacy of their ancestors, August 9, 2019. © Matt Kane / TNC

Maryland/DC's Urban Conservation Associate Lena Easton Calabria attended the event and added, "When The Nature Conservancy and Nature Sacred first set out to build a Community-Designed Greenspace at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, we knew it was vitally important to create something that acknowledged those buried at the site while providing a space for visitors to reflect in nature.  The ancestral commemoration event organized by Gayle George did exactly the same thing, and we’re honored that this space could play a role in that."

This is a place that acknowledges those people that are buried here. And we know that our ancestors are buried here. I call it a sacred space.

Weems Descendant, Event Organizer

Matt Kane is the Senior Media Relations Manager for the Maryland/DC chapter.