Some of those buried in the Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church cemetery in Bowie, Maryland, outside of Washington, DC, were probably once enslaved. As freed people, most were small tobacco farmers or sharecroppers.
Though they lived at the bottom of the social/economic ladder, memories of them and their final resting places are being restored. “The work of the church’s members to reclaim the cemetery is proof that to many people Black lives matter in death, too,” says Morgan State University Archivist Dr. Ida Jones.
To preserve the cemetery, restore the church, and offer educational programming, Mount Nebo church members formed the non-profit Friends of Historic Mount Nebo Preservation Corporation (FOHMNPC). They recently hired Dr. Tim Horsley to help them identify unmarked graves that are in the cemetery adjacent to the church.
The archaeological geophysician used a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) machine that uses positive energy to create sub-terrain maps that can identity human burials with near accuracy. One of the sources of false findings, he says, is that burials “often disappear” in about 80 years after the bodies and burial materials have returned to dust.
“We are also collecting transcripts of people who are buried in the graveyard and how what they endured relate to today’s injustices.”
- FOHMNPC Cemetery Project Manager Jan Hagey
The earliest recorded burial was in 1859, more 150 years ago; with many of the bodies facing east, which is a Muslim tradition. Islamic influences are not atypical in African American spirituality says Amir Muhammed of America’s Islamic Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in Washington, DC. On the outside of some of the pews at the historic First African Baptist Church in Savannah, the oldest Black church In North America, are writings done in classical West African Arabic script from the 1800s.
Horsley’s research is part of an extensive plan for the site which once included a two-room schoolhouse that was the hub of Queen Anne’s Black community for more than 100 years. The community was a small one in Prince George’s County, Maryland, with only about 150 residents at its peak. It was also the home of a former seaport on the Patuxent River; most of the town's former waterfront area is now part of Patuxent River Park.
“We are also collecting transcripts of people who are buried in the graveyard and how what they endured relate to today’s injustices,” says FOHMNPC Cemetery Project Manager Jan Hagey, who is originally from Columbus, Ohio and came to the area in the 1980s. Using her education outreach training, she shared the story of Dr. Williams Lang Watkins who moved to the community and sought to live on Queen Ann Bridge Road around 1876.
Hagey says that when White residents told Watkins that no “N” was going to live there, he told them, “I am not a “N” and I will live where I want to live.” She added, “He did move there and his descendants are still in the area.”
By 1965, many Black families had begun moving out of the then rural Mitchellville/Bowie area. Many migrated to the nearest big city, Washington, DC., whose eastern border is seven miles away.
Glenda West’s family was one of those families. “It was country and we lived on Binger Farm where my grandmother used to work as the maid,” she recalls. She remembers walking about two miles from her home to Mount Nebo church and adjacent Mount Nebo (Colored) Elementary School.
The nearest thing to a town was Upper Marlboro, 11 miles away.
It was around 1955, during an era of continued Black urbanization, when West’s family moved from Hall Station, an area many now call Mitchellville/Bowie, to the Washington, DC neighborhood of Fort Dupont, Southeast. Her grandmother moved to Capital Heights, Maryland, just off the DC-Maryland boundary line.