Hidden in plain sight

Oak Hill Cemetery

I have a new idea for a photo essay, and this is my first contribution. I realize that the city looks completely different on a bike than it does in a car or even on foot, and you notice things you would not otherwise. I hope to collect and post more photos of discoveries made on my bike.

But let’s start with the photo above, taken of a cemetery dating back to the 1840s.

I was inspired by my neighbor, an avid cyclist, to take a ride this weekend through the city. I rode through Rock Creek Park, a beautiful stretch of trees and water that serves mostly as a highway for commuters. But the parkway looks completely different on a bike or on foot, and you start to notice things you may not otherwise.

I had caught a glimpse of this graveyard once before, but it was only on the bike trail that I got a chance to get up close. I noticed a placard, which said that this section of Oak Hill Cemetery was reserved for freed slaves and is one of the oldest black cemeteries in the area. I have a fascination with cemeteries as it is, and the history of this one really gave me pause.

Who knows what lives the people buried there lived? We can have some idea by looking up the history of those buried there: People such as Isabella Baumfree, who at the age of 9 was sold away from her family along with a herd of sheep for $100.

Her owners beat her, including once with, in her own words, “a bundle of rods, prepared in the embers, and bound together with cords.” And she was sold again, into conditions that seem even worse. She was forcibly separated from a lover and made to marry someone of her owner’s choosing before she finally ran away.

She went on to become a great spiritual leader, changed her name to Sojourner Truth and helped the Union during the Civil War. She lived in Washington D.C. after the war and helped freed slaves settle there and in the Western territories before passing away in 1883.

And there she lies, facing Rock Creek Parkway, where thousands drive by every day without noticing. Not to get too melodramatic here, but I believe it’s worth a moment of reflection.

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