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Their journey to unearth a cemetery for enslaved people led to communitywide interest

February 9, 2024 |

CHEVY CHASE, Md. — Rachel Perić was pushing her stroller through her neighborhood in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic when she noticed an older home with a log cabin on the property — something she hadn’t noticed before. She went home and logged in to the Chevy Chase Historical Society’s website looking for information.

Perić learned that in the 1800s, Chevy Chase consisted of farms and slaveholding plantations. “That was a huge surprise to me,” Perić says. “It wasn’t the history that I had grown up with. So I kept digging.”

Chevy Chase is made up of about a dozen subdivisions, including Rollingwood, where Perić lives — an affluent, quiet, leafy suburb of Washington, D.C.

On the historical society’s website, Perić came across a 1997 report written by the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. She says, “There was this reference to a burial ground where people who had been enslaved on these farms were buried. And I said, ‘What is this?'”

She recalls vivid memories of long nights when she would be “sitting hunched over my phone, waiting for my children to fall asleep at night, poring through these historical society records.”

Nationwide historically, Black burial sites have been erased, built over or neglected and their history wiped out. But now, people are taking agency, looking for clues in their communities to piece together lost history.

Serendipitous connection
In the spring of 2022, Perić saw a listserv posting from one of her neighbors.

Nadine Chapman shared an article about the history of racism in Montgomery County, Md., where Chevy Chase is located.

Perić says she was stirred by the article.

“And in that moment, I said, ‘I need to share this with the neighborhood,'” Perić says. She thought that her neighbors would not know about the enslaved people’s burial site. Her goal was to spark a community conversation about it.

That same day, in the evening, Perić dropped her findings in the listserv. Chapman immediately responded.

“There’s a lot of synergy between us,” Chapman says, referring to the relationship that has flourished between her and Perić since.

Like many other places around the United States, Chevy Chase had racially restrictive covenants that banned renting or selling a home to Black, Jewish, Asian and many other nonwhite individuals in the early 20th century.

“I am Black, and she is Jewish,” says Chapman, describing herself and Perić.

Chapman’s parents came to the United States from Jamaica, and they met as students at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Chapman was born at Freedmen’s Hospital on campus. It was the first hospital for emancipated slaves. Then her family moved to Silver Spring, Maryland.

“I was called a n***** at school. I was called a n***** in my neighborhood. I grew up knowing that racism exists in so-called liberal Montgomery County,” says 55-year-old Chapman.

She’s trained as a lawyer and specializes in alternative dispute resolution for an international organization in D.C. Chapman says she moved to Rollingwood to give her kids a solid education in 2004, when her eldest was 3 years old. Her second daughter was born in Rollingwood in 2006.

Perić, on the other hand, grew up in Rollingwood, and she and her husband are raising their two daughters, ages 7 and 4, in the home where she grew up.

Perić’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors who came to the United States in the late 1940s with her mother. Perić grew up with their stories of losing everyone they loved to a world of hate and intolerance, she says.

“And so I feel like I’ve been on this quest my whole life to try to figure out how we create the opposite of that,” a world where everyone is equal and safe, she says. Perić says she learned about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement in school, but it was taught in a detached way. “It didn’t happen here. This isn’t our history — we’re part of the North here, which was untrue.”

Perić, 44, works for a nonprofit organization focusing on immigration. She says that while she was growing up, her mother drilled into her to get involved in her community, especially if she saw wrongs, she says.

Soon after moving to Rollingwood, Chapman began having second thoughts. She says she struggled to fit in. She tried to get involved in the community, without much traction. Perić’s email changed that, Chapman says. The two have called county officials and organized neighborhood gatherings to share their findings and to elicit ideas on how to memorialize the people buried in their neighborhood.

Chapman hosted the first in-person gathering at her home in the summer of 2022. She says the turnout exceeded her expectations.

“People were very curious,” Chapman says. “I think there were some people who were probably concerned that we were going to dig up their backyards. Some of those people never came back. One person was a bit rude. But for the most part, people were genuinely interested.”

The women say they made their goals very clear from the beginning. “This is not about excavating properties,” Chapman says. “We’re about educating people and acknowledging a part of our history that was not pretty.”

Chapman and Perić say their goal is to honor and memorialize the people interred at Rollingwood.

Rollingwood’s knowns and known unknowns
Last fall, the Chevy Chase Historical Society began a series of lectures highlighting the area’s history — it’s called the Hidden Histories of Chevy Chase. The first focused on the burial site, the Rollingwood Burial Ground for Enslaved People.

Renata Lisowski, the director of the society’s Archive and Research Center, is trained as a public historian and specializes in community records. One of the 33-year-old’s interests is cemeteries, burial grounds and sites of conscience, she says.

“I spent a lot of time in cemeteries because my dad had a lot of aunts and uncles who died when I was a child. So we would go to the cemetery and visit their graves,” she says. Lisowski was also mesmerized by the Old Edinboro Cemetery, a historical cemetery in Edinboro, Lisowski’s hometown in Pennsylvania: “I would eat lunch there and read there and meet friends there.”

In graduate school, Lisowski’s interests grew. She became interested in the history of cemeteries and the communities where they are placed. “Many have been erased by urban development, especially Black cemeteries — for one, there were no headstones put in place in the 19th century for enslaved people,” she says.

But in the case of Rollingwood, Lisowski says, we know many knowns. “We know the persons who owned the land when it was a burial ground,” she says. There is a land deed in the Montgomery County Land Records archives dated June 3, 1864.

“We know roughly where it was,” Lisowski says. “We know that those people had been enslavers.” Chevy Chase slave owners like B.T. Hodges, Greenbury Watkins, Samuel Anderson, Joseph Bradley, John C. Jones and James Dunlop, says Lisowski. “We know roughly how many people they enslaved at given points in time.”

But that’s where things get to what Lisowski calls the known unknowns. “Who were these people that got buried there? We don’t have their names. They didn’t record the names of enslaved people in the census. They only record the individual’s sex and their age.”

Lisowski is passionate and unflinching about the work she does. She interchangeably uses the terms “human trafficking” and “slavery.”

“The word ‘slavery’ on its own has become less tangible. We think about slavery as a thing that existed in the past that we don’t do anymore. We do. It’s called human trafficking,” says Lisowski.

Mapping out history
Antoinette Jackson is a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. In 2020, she created the African American Burial Ground & Remembering Project, focusing on forgotten and erased cemeteries in the Tampa Bay area. That project was the forerunner to the Black Cemetery Network, she says — a platform that serves as a public archive for people actively engaged in discovering and preserving the history of Black burial sites across the United States.

“I realized this was a national problem and it wasn’t just the Tampa Bay area or the Florida area. It was national,” says Jackson. The Black Cemetery Network has mapped out 140 burial sites across the nation, from Massachusetts to Texas to Vermont to Michigan.

“We’re finding cemeteries under housing complexes, under office buildings, parking lots,” she says. The lack of legal rights and protections, as a result of slavery and segregation, is the culprit, says Jackson.

“It directly impacted Black people’s ability to sustain the centers and the burial practices and sacred sites,” Jackson says. Black communities were often those that were condemned or erased.

But things are changing. “That is the big story,” Jackson says. “People are looking around where they live and go, ‘Wait a minute, I see that.’ And they start to do research on their own communities, looking at historical records, maps, land deeds.”

Jackson says that people are feeling empowered by unearthing their local history.

“That’s the way you can become part of the public reckoning, and that’s how they start the conversation to acknowledge our shared history and memorialize it.”

Just like it happened at Rollingwood in Chevy Chase, Md., with Rachel Perić and Nadine Chapman.

Chapman says that uncovering this history makes her feel energized and that she wants to make sure it’s memorialized. She says she would appreciate knowing the names of the people buried in Rollingwood but, regardless, honoring them is as important to her. “These are real people, not just an abstract number, real people who lived here,” she says.

For Perić, knowing that enslaved people lived and are buried in her neighborhood is haunting, she says. She’s in synergy with Chapman about the goals, she says, “to bring back that sense of dignity and humanity to people who never received it in their lifetime.”

The women are also hopeful that Montgomery County Public Schools will incorporate the Rollingwood history into its official curriculum. Already a local middle school has expressed interest in having its students learn about it.

Though this journey has been uplifting for Chapman and Perić, it has also stirred emotions. The two made it clear to their community that they were not looking to blame or excavate anybody’s property. But they are hoping for a nationwide reckoning on the subject, they say.

Slavery is a thorny issue, though Chapman and Perić don’t shy away from difficult conversations, and they wish the nation wouldn’t either. When asked about how they navigate it, Chapman takes a deep breath.

“I definitely feel Rachel’s pain,” Chapman says. “I don’t always feel that my pain as a Black person is felt.”

Looking straight at Chapman, Perić says, “It’s painful to hear about your pain.” Perić’s eyes well up as she searches for words. “I think there is shame associated with the past. I think there is shame associated with the way that people have benefited from slavery and racism.”

Chapman asks, “Why can’t Americans apologize for what they’ve done? Why?” She says it frustrates her when people say, “It wasn’t me. It was my great-grandfather.”

Chapman says that it doesn’t matter if the harm was done generations ago, because their white descendants are still benefiting. For people to just say, “‘get over it’ — that’s not acceptable,” and she adds that to move on, the country needs to reckon with and embrace its history.

For now, Chapman and Perić are full of hope. They have already identified a popular park in the neighborhood at which to honor those individuals buried in Rollingwood, and it has been approved by the county. They are working with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to place interpretive signage on the site, and work is planned to begin later this year.

The Rollingwood Burial Ground for Enslaved People will no longer be buried history, Chapman and Perić say, and the enslaved individuals buried there will then be honored in perpetuity.

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