Honoring the Memory of Enslaved Ancestors

The new memorial at Mt. Olivet Cemetery is surrounded by a field of green grass where enslaved African Americans were buried without markers.

In a poignant ceremony recently, choir members from Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish stood together at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington singing “Shall We Gather at the River.”  The spiritual opened a prayer service for the installation of a commemorative plaque honoring men, women and children who in life had been enslaved and in death were buried in unmarked graves in a section of this resting place.

The ceremony marked the first installation of other like plaques being placed this month for prayerful remembrance and honor at the archdiocese’s five major cemeteries, including Mount Olivet, Queen of Peace Cemetery in Saint Mary’s County, Resurrection Cemetery in Prince George’s County, and Gate of Heaven Cemetery and All Souls Cemetery, both in Montgomery County.

The spiritual for the Mount Olivet service is a song of hope that draws its inspiration from the coming together for worship and community fellowship on Sundays by families who had been held in bondage and forced labor during a shameful period of our nation’s history. It also harkens to the waters of Baptism that unite us all as sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters to one another.

“Today we need to acknowledge past sins of racism and, in a spirit of reconciliation, move toward a Church and society where the wounds of racism are healed,” I said in my pastoral letter last fall, The Challenge of Racism Today.  With that resolve, earlier this year I blessed and dedicated the bronze memorials to begin the process of correcting an unjust failure. Now, in ground made holy by their remains as a temple of the Holy Spirit, we mark and remember them.  In this small way, we seek to restore the honor and dignity that was so grievously denied them.

These enslaved ancestors and emancipated people of color helped build many of our landmarks here, including the U.S. Capitol and the White House.  But more importantly, they laid a foundation of faith that has endured in their descendants for generations. Despite the crosses they bore from the sin of racism, they kept and passed on the faith.  As we face struggles in our own day, we can learn from how they drew strength and courage from Jesus and his Gospel, the source of our ultimate freedom and hope.

The memorials remind us that those wounded by the sin of racism should never be forgotten.  By our prayers and through our work for justice, let us shine the light of faith on our world and live in solidarity with all those around us, respecting the God-given human dignity that we all share as we look forward to the day when together we will “gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.”