Sunken but visible stones at Mt. Olivet Cemetery where Henry Lemon is buried. Photo by Jerry A. McCoy.
Between 1850 and 1860, Francis Preston Blair, Sr. (1791-1876), advisor to U.S. presidents from Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant, enslaved up to 20 human beings at his Montgomery County home, “Silver Spring.”
These individuals ranged in age from a 60-year-old man to a one-month-old boy. These men, women, and children were documented in the 1850 and 1860 “U.S. Federal Census—Slave Schedules” yet were not listed by name; the only description noted was their age, sex, and color (“B” for black or “M” for mulatto).
Nearly 60 years later, Blair’s grandson, Gist Blair (1860-1940), revealed a partial name of one his grandfather’s slaves in a talk titled “Annals of Silver Spring” that he presented in 1917 to the members of the Columbia Historical Society and published in Vol. XXI, 1918 of The Records of the Columbia Historical Society.
When I read Blair’s words, “My grandfather owned a number of slaves, among whom ‘Uncle Henry,’ the coachman…,” I was immediately transfixed.
Here was a kernel of information that could perhaps lead to a resurrection of this man’s humanity instead of having his life reduced to a disrespectful epithet.
In short order I consulted the 1870 U.S. Federal Census. This is the first decennial census to list all enslaved African-Americans by their full names. Individuals were enumerated in the general order of where they lived in relation to one another. I suspected that some of those whom Blair enslaved might still be living in the vicinity of his home, “Silver Spring.”
This census revealed that living next door to him were seven African-Americans who ranged from 13 to 60 years of age. The occupations of three women were noted as “domestic servant” with the male individuals listed as a gardener, farm laborer and coachman. The coachman? Henry Lemon.
A subsequent search of the 1880 U.S. Federal Census revealed a coachman named Henry Lemon who was born “about 1816” and living on Boundary Street in northeast Washington, D.C. (today’s Florida Avenue).
Due to a 1921 fire that virtually destroyed the entire 1890 U.S. Federal Census (a perpetual bane for genealogists), a subsequent search for him in the 1900 census came up empty.
Assuming that Mr. Lemon was deceased by 1900, my research then turned to seeking out those who had died in the District of Columbia. Using electronic databases, no hits were made in searching for “Henry Lemon.” It was only when the search was simplified to all males with the surname “Lemon” who were born between 1800 and 1820 did one name jump out, William H. Lemon.
William H. Lemon died on June 27, 1893, and his occupation was recorded as coachman with his estimated birth year listed as 1806. A pivotal piece of missing information was a listing of race, but I was elated to see the name of the cemetery where he was buried, Mt. Olivet.
Historic Mt. Olivet Cemetery, located at 1300 Bladensburg Rd., N.E., was established in 1858 and is the largest Catholic cemetery in the District of Columbia. It was also one of the first in the city to be racially integrated.
Placing a phone call to the cemetery, I quickly learned that William H. Lemon was buried in the cemetery’s Section 6, 31—Ninth Line. I asked the receptionist if a race was noted for Mr. Lemon and she replied there was none, but that the church where his service was conducted was listed as being St. Augustine’s. Founded in 1858 by group of emancipated black Catholics, St. Augustine Catholic Church is still today located at 1419 V Street, N.W.
The search was on!
On a bitterly cold February weekend, colleagues Marci Stickle and George French joined me as we drove the eight and half miles south from downtown Silver Spring to Mt. Olivet. We entered the cemetery through a small rear gate that was opened off of West Virginia Avenue and it took us a while to navigate its serpentine roadways to the opposite side where the cemetery’s office is located inside the main Bladensburg Road entrance. Stopping in at the office to confirm Mr. Lemon’s gravesite location, we were advised that they didn’t know if there would be a stone.
After experiencing some difficulty finding our way due to the fact that there were no street signs to correspond with those listed on the map that was provided, we arrived at a mostly barren-looking Section 6. Situated closest to and paralleling St. Cyprian’s Avenue, which bordered Section 6 on the east, were a couple of dozen upright headstones that mostly dated from the 20th Century.
Moving immediately beyond these headstones were a few scattered gravesites marked by flat stones. In fact, there were so few that Casey Trees, a non-profit organization established in 2001 to restore, enhance, and protect the tree canopy of Washington, D.C., had planted half a dozen saplings in the section. Nowhere was there any indication in Section 6 of numbered lines much less a number 31.
It quickly became evident that it was going to be very difficult to find Mr. Lemon. For each flat stone that we came across, there were just as many slight depressions in the sod that had been overgrown by grass and filled in with leaves.
At each one of these depressions, we kicked away the leaves, grass, and in some cases, soil. Multiple times we were able to partially view the name on a stone, but at most of the depressions we kept kicking aside sod only to hit nothing.
After an hour of careful searching, we had to give up. Our failure was heartbreaking knowing that we were so close to locating him only to be thwarted by the passing of time. The reality was that if Mr. Lemon had been laid to rest under a (presumed) flat stone, it had sunken so deeply over the ensuing 125 years that it was no longer visible.
Disappointed but not yet resigned to never finding him, we returned to the office to submit a “Request for Burial or Genealogy Information” form to have the exact location of Mr. Lemon’s gravesite flagged. Hopefully, this information will be forthcoming and then the Silver Spring Historical Society will look into having a proper headstone erected and a commemorative event held.
We hope you will join us in this endeavor to properly acknowledge and honor the life of William Henry Lemon.
McCoy is president of the Silver Spring Historical Society.