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Have You Ever Been a Part of Uncovering History?

Jan 10, 2009 | Services

Have You Ever Been a Part of Uncovering History?
By Ryan Sarvis

Recently, Johnson’s Landscaping Service, Inc. has had the honor of renovating a piece of American history; namely, a crypt used as a hiding spot for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.  Nestled in the heart of Georgetown and above Rock Creek is the small, Mt. Zion cemetery, established in 1822 when the Mt. Zion Church acquired several acres from the federal government. The church began to use the property for the final resting place of its congregation members and some of the unclaimed dead from the city morgue.  A simple and basic crypt was built just above the creek made of brick and mortar to be used in the future.

As a gateway to the North, Washington, D.C. was a vital and important stop for African Americans escaping the oppression of southern slavery via the Underground Railroad. Many white citizens provided escaping slaves shelter in their homes or on their property. Mt. Zion Church and its members, many of whom were freed slaves themselves, provided aid in the form of food, drink, shelter, and directions to the next stop on the Underground Railroad.

The slaves only traveled at night to avoid patrollers looking for blacks on the road without permission.   During the daytime, the Mt. Zion crypt provided shelter for the escaped slaves.  After the Civil War ended, the crypt was no longer used, and after many years of neglect, fell into disrepair.

As the church’s budget shrank over the years, the hillside surrounding the crypt became overgrown with polk weed, poison ivy, and other brush. For many years very little maintenance was done to keep the area in good shape. In 2003, the church applied for assistance from the National Park Service to renovate the site and to later become a national historic preservation area. After several years of campaigning, the Church was successful in getting the needed assistance, and was able to move forward with the areas’ renovation.

Several church members were long-time customers of Johnson’s Landscaping, and looked to us to help implement the needed changes.   We were very excited about the possibility of uncovering history for all to see.

The church’s main purpose was to enable easy visitor access to the site, and to create an area for people to sit and receive information about the site’s history.   When we first visited the site, we could barely see the crypt through the thick brush and we had difficulty getting close due to the steep hillside. We could see that they were in need of serious assistance. We set out to design a visitor’s path and surrounding landscape that were both scenic and useful. We also had to keep the small budget in mind. Most of all, we wanted to provide a safe as well as scenic setting for visitors.

After presenting our plan, the church leaders and the landscape designers from Johnson’s Landscaping worked together to fine tune the design so that all parties were fully satisfied.  After approval, Johnson’s sent out expert construction and landscaping crews. The crews first cleared and hauled all brush and debris from the site. We excavated a path and installed timber steps and leveled areas between steps. We planted several evergreen shrubs and hardy grasses….plant life that would thrive in the conditions surrounding the crypt. For safety, we installed a railing made of 4 inch posts and heavy duty rope. Finally, we put a thick layer of mulch to prevent weeds and unwanted plant material from coming back. The final product was a low maintenance landscape that all visitors could enjoy.

We at Johnson’s Landscaping were proud to share in the work of uncovering an important piece of local history.

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About the Author

Matt Johnson grew up in a family of landscapers and gardeners as the grandson of Raymond Johnson (Founder, 1933, Johnson's Florist and Garden Center) and son of James and Carol Johnson (Founders, 1960, Johnson's Landscaping Service, Inc.). Since 2007, he has led Johnson's Landscaping Service with his brother, Charlie.  Matt and his wife Jaime live in Petworth in Northwest DC with their 3 sons and 2 big dogs.

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