Forsaken Obligations in Holy Rood
The words “Holy Rood” are a reference to the sacred relic of the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. Holy Rood also, however, refers to a seemingly forgotten cemetery on Wisconsin Avenue, the care of which was entrusted to our university.
Furthermore, the cemetery is one of the largest slave burial grounds in the country, and if Georgetown University is committed to reconciling with its historical connection to slavery, then it must protect this land and respect the history of those buried there.
In 1832, Holy Trinity Church established a burial ground on what is now Wisconsin Avenue. In 1942, the Archdiocese of Washington entrusted Georgetown with the important task of caring for the land — now the cemetery known as Holy Rood.
The historical site contains the graves of Revolutionary War heroes, priests, the founder of Tenleytown and hundreds of Georgetown residents. Moreover, up to 1,000 freed and enslaved black people are buried in the cemetery in unmarked graves. Holy Rood is most likely the most documented slave burial ground in all of Washington, D.C., according to historians of Glover Park, which encompasses Holy Rood.
The cemetery has recently fallen into disrepair because of a lack of attention. Many of the tombstones have been broken or vandalized. Trash often lays scattered around the cemetery. The entire fence line is crumbling, and the back field of the cemetery, which is also the oldest part — and where most of the enslaved and freed black people were buried — is, sadly, used by neighbors as a dog park. Little has been done to preserve and respect the memory of those buried in Holy Rood, which means many of the graves have been lost over the burial ground’s 186-year history.
Under the leadership of President Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., in 1984, Georgetown explored the option of exhuming the bodies buried in the cemetery and selling the land. As the land sits at one of the highest points in D.C., it has a beautiful view of the Rosslyn, Va., skyline and would likely sell for a high price. However, the university is barred from selling the land because of D.C. law surrounding burial rights.
Thankfully, the land was not sold; however, it is still sparsely attended to. Opinion writers published in The Washington Post and The Hoya have both criticized the university for its disregard for the cemetery before. These pieces encouraged the university to recommit itself to its care for the grounds in years past. Today, we need a new commitment by the university to Holy Rood.
Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation yielded much positive change, including the renaming of buildings and exploring the stories of modern descendants of the 272 slaves sold by Georgetown. However, if we as Georgetown community members are truly committed to the process of reconciliation, we must reflect and change our care of Holy Rood Cemetery.
April 16 was Emancipation Day, and in an effort to continue a discussion of Georgetown’s involvement in the legacy of slavery, the Office of the President hosted a conversation on Anne Marie Becraft, who founded a day school for girls of color and for whom we recently named a campus dormitory.
Becraft herself is intricately connected to Holy Rood Cemetery: Holy Rood’s archives reveal at least a dozen of Becraft’s direct family members are buried there. If we are truly committed to remembering and preserving Becraft’s legacy, we must preserve the grounds in which her family is buried.
Georgetown needs to take action and correct the failures of its past care. First, it should be made clear through signage that dogs are not allowed in the park. The university should also consider gating off the grounds to discourage dog walkers from bringing dogs into the cemetery.
Moreover, the university should place a plaque that recognizes the historic nature of the cemetery and the hundreds of unmarked graves that exist in the back area of the holy ground.
Georgetown should ensure the cemetery has a regularized maintenance schedule, so grass remains well-trimmed and trash is removed. Furthermore, grounds crews should be given the time necessary to properly care for the land, as years of hasty mowing jobs have left tombstones marred by cuts and marks.
The university should also invest in the removal of the crumbling, decrepit back fence of the cemetery and trim back the decaying trees that hang over the back grounds.
Finally, other ways to pay respect to the history of the cemetery should be discussed further with the President’s office, as well as continuing the work of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. Georgetown has an obligation to honor the memories of the individuals buried in Holy Rood.
Too few students know the story behind Holy Rood. The sacred ground was entrusted to this university. We are bound by a duty to preserve it. Georgetown’s foundational Catholic faith calls the school to respect those who have passed, something it has failed to fully do for this cemetery.
If we are truly committed to the process of reconciling with the university’s past, the next step must be centered around proper care for the burial grounds that continue to call to mind our university’s connection to slavery.
Hunter Estes is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.