Exploring African American history is challenging for historians. This is, in part, because African American history contains many instances of difficult history including slavery, discrimination, prejudice, and segregation. Additionally, there is little surviving written documentation about African Americans, especially in early American history. Most of the written documents that do exist were not written by African Americans because enslaved Africans had little to no ability to keep their own records. Therefore, African American history is primarily viewed through the lens of white Americans and white society. Consequently, things important to African Americans– such as relationships, skills, and forms of knowledge– are often erased. Historians have to rely on cultural practices and material objects to complement the surviving written records of African Americans in order to gain a better understanding of African American history.
At Congressional Cemetery, we do not have much surviving documentation about African Americans, especially in the 1800s and early 1900s. Many of the sources we rely on were written by white Americans, which limits our understanding of African American history. While the existing documents offer some glimpse into the lives of some of the African American residents at the cemetery, there is much that remains unknown.
Harriet Gordon (Range 22, Site 249):
Harriet was born in Maryland and never learned how to read or write. Harriet and her son, David, were owned by Ann Roberts (Range 17, Site 103) who purchased Harriet from her brother, John Loker in circa 1842, when Harriet was about 26 years old. While Harriet was enslaved to Ann, David was born. In a petition, Ann described Harriet as a “dark mulatto, about five feet three inches in height…[Harriet was a] first-rate cook, washer and ironer- honest, willing capable and obedient.” Ann received compensation in the amount of $1,160.70 for her four slaves. After Ann’s death in 1866, Harriet became a servant in the home of Dr. William E. Roberts (Range 18, Site 101), Ann’s grandson, who died in 1892. It is unclear the fate of Harriet’s son, David. Harriet died on December 25, 1874 at the age of 50.
Eliza Rivers (Range 22, Site 250):
Eliza Rivers was born in Virginia and died on March 14, 1877 at the age of 86. In the 1860 Census, Rivers was listed as a “nurse in the home of Jesse B. Haw,” and in the 1870 Census, she was listed as the “head of house, keeping house.” At the time of her death, she was living at 415 5th Street in SE Washington, DC.
Jane Walker (Range 37, Site 193):
Jane Walker was the “faithful and devoted friend and servant” in the family of Col. William Bell. Walker died on December 26, 1913. It is unclear how old she was when she died.
Mary Otto Rozier (Range 33, Site 223):
For several years, Mary Rozier was a “faithful and beloved domestic in the family of Dr. L.D. Gale” in Washington, DC. Rozier died suddenly on November 14, 1880, and her funeral was held at Wesley Zion Church. It is unknown how old Rozier was when she died.