Five years ago, Virginia State Sen. Richard Stuart stumbled upon a two-mile stretch of erosion control filled with gravestones along the riverfront of the property he had just purchased in King George County.
Historians revealed that the gravestones once belonging to a historic African American cemetery in 1960 were dug up and dumped along the Potomac River to make way for commercial development.
The cemetery was relocated in 1960 and the land upon which it once stood now serves as the site for the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station. Most remains were believed to be relocated to a memorial garden in Landover, Maryland.
However, "in a dehumanizing act, most of the grave markers and monuments were sold for scrap or dumped for erosion-control rubble along the Potomac River," Gov. Northam's press release states.
The headstones that were recovered from the Potomac will be transferred to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland, and will form part of a one-acre memorial garden to honor the 37,000 people who were laid to rest at Columbian Harmony Cemetery.
"The governor's actions, the city's actions to recover those headstones and put them back in their rightful place is a beautiful gesture, a kind of symbolic justice, but it should have never happened in the first place," said Karlos Hill, an associate professor and chair of the Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma.
"The families of those individuals deserve an apology, they deserve reparations for the kind of psychic trauma that this caused them and their families," he added.
'Black bodies still had no sanctuary,' historian says
The desecration of the grave site was a "form of symbolic violence against the Black body," Prof. Hill said.
Citing James Allen's book "Without Sanctuary," Hill said the story of the Columbian Harmony Cemetery represents the idea that "Black bodies, Black people, live in a society where they are without sanctuary.There is no safe place of refuge for Black Americans. Black people were segregated, lynched, disenfranchised from cradle to grave."
"What this story helps us understand is that even in death, Black bodies still had no sanctuary," Hill told CNN. "Their bodies, even in death, were not given any kind of sacred significance, so much so that their headstones were destroyed, and not just destroyed, but removed and tossed to the side as if those people never lived, as if their histories didn't matter, their families' memory of them didn't matter."
Sen. Stuart, who purchased a property along the Potomac River in 2016, discovered the gravestones one day as he was walking around the property with his wife Lisa.
"We were walking along the shoreline," Stuart told CNN on Monday. "It was a heavily wooded area and as Lisa and I were picking our way through the woods, she just kind of looked over and then looked at me, and we realized we were looking at a headstone. And we saw another one, and we saw another one, and another one."
Stuart said at the time that he had no idea how the headstones got there or where they came from, but he felt adamant to find out.
"I remember that day...my wife's eyes welled up, and I felt like I had been hit in the stomach. We said we were going to do whatever we can to make this right," Stuart said. "Nobody's gravestone should be used as riprap on the Potomac."
Stuart said he enlisted the help of Gov. Northam, who then called upon historians and other volunteers who eventually identified the gravestones and their origin.
Northam said in a statement Monday that the dumping of the gravestones in the Potomac after the cemetery's relocation reflected an indignity "inflicted on people of color even after death."
"It's our duty to make sure these headstones are returned to the graves they were intended to mark and honor," Northam said.