Historic Woodlawn Cemetery


The History of Woodlawn Cemetery

Designated as the seat of the federal government in 1800, the citizenry of Washington, DC, was indeed diverse.  Free white residents, free colored residents and slaves interacted to develop a thriving city.  Among the many social needs to be addressed was the need for cemeteries. In 1802, the city established two public cemeteries, the Western Burial Ground (formerly Holmead’s Cemetery) and the Eastern Burial Ground.

1791 Map of the District of Columbia

Subsequently, several cemeteries dedicated to the interment of the African American population were founded.  These included Harmoneon (Harmony) Cemetery (1828), the Female Union Band Cemetery (1842), and Mt. Zion Cemetery (1879), all located in the northwest section of the city.  Graceland Cemetery, founded in 1872 and located near the intersection of Benning Road and H Street, NE, was convenient to the section of the city near the Anacostia River.  Subsequently, disuse and city expansion caused Graceland’s management to seek burial ground elsewhere to establish a new cemetery.  Thus, Graceland, a predominately African American cemetery, became the forerunner of Woodlawn Cemetery.

Woodlawn Cemetery was established in 1895 at its present site.  The original officers of the association were Jesse E. Ergood, President; Charles C. Van Horn, Secretary/Treasurer; Seymour W. Tullock, Director; William Tindall, Director; and Odell S. Smith, Director.   Many of these individuals also were founders of, or associated with, Graceland Cemetery.  The initial Woodlawn Cemetery interments, made from May 11, 1895 to October 7, 1898, consisted primarily of over 6,000 re-interments from Graceland Cemetery.

Pastor James C. Dent

No specific information remains regarding the appearance of Woodlawn Cemetery during its early years.  However, there is little doubt that it was considered a desirable interment area. This becomes evident by reading the list of recognizable names of those interred there and by looking at the large and imposing grave monuments standing in the grounds.  Among the well-known individuals buried at Woodlawn are Blanche K. Bruce, Mary P. Burrill, Will Marion Cook, John W. Cromwell, W. Bruce Evans, John R. Francis, John Mercer Langston, Jesse Lawson, Mary Meriwether, John Willis Menard, Daniel Murray, and Major Frederick Revels. The size and style of their headstones serve as final evidence of their prominence during life. 


In 1933, civic leader J. C. Wright led an effort to revitalize the cemetery.  In 1936, Wright’s action brought about new management of the cemetery.  Known as Elmwood Memorial Park, Inc., this group improved the entranceway, added fencing and a small brick office building inside the main gate. 

During this time of renewal, burials continued at Woodlawn Cemetery. In 1940, the remains of 129 bodies removed from the Colored Union Benevolent Association Burial Ground were re-interred at Woodlawn, and an additional 1,271 individuals received in 1858.  However, interments significantly diminished after 1960.  From 1961-1970, land speculator Louis Bell managed Woodlawn Cemetery with plans of full restoration and revitalized business. 

In 1970, the maintenance of historic Woodlawn Cemetery was left to volunteer efforts.  On November 15, 1972, Bruce O. Hawkins led a group that incorporated as the Woodlawn Cemetery Perpetual Care Association.  The organization’s goal was to accumulate enough funds through donations to restore the area to a respectable level.

An unrestored Woodlawn Cemetery

In honor of the prominence of many of the interred, the cemetery was listed on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in 1991 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.  Today, the associations of Woodlawn Cemetery are working diligently to restore the historic site.

Adapted from material written by Paul E. Sluby, Sr., C.G.