The Congressional Cemetery: Forgotten and Found

View of the Congressional Cemetery in the 1930s

In the 1970s, the Congressional Cemetery was in trouble. After years of neglect, it looked abandoned: broken headstones littered the ground, family vaults caved in, and the grass was waist high. Fifty years later, the cemetery has undergone a stunning transformation. As well as being an active burial ground, it serves as a community garden, urban wildlife sanctuary, place of remembrance, and historic site. Volunteers, many from the local Capitol Hill neighborhoods, work tirelessly to keep up the grounds and reverse the damage of decades past. Because, as it turns out, the Congressional Cemetery has always been a people’s effort. Despite its official-sounding name, and despite its importance to national history, its story is much more local.

Early map of DC showing the diagonal avenues named for states

What's in a Name? The State Avenues

There are fifty-one streets in D.C. named for every state and Puerto Rico. But, admittedly, not all state avenues are created equal. Some are long, vital roadways through our city. Others are historic and prominent—the location of our country’s most important events. And some are…well, a bit hard to find. Admit it: you probably couldn’t point to all of them on a city map. So why are some state avenues more prominent than others? Is there any method to the naming madness?

The First Black Girl Scout Troops of the Nation’s Capital

Girl Scouts on Parade in Washington D.C., July 4 2014 (Source: Flickr user Miki Jourdan, via Creative Commons)

If you were to delve into the history of the Girl Scouts of the Nation’s Capital (GSNC), most of what you would find relates to troops’ longstanding history of service. After all, Girl Scout’s mission statement espouses values like “courage, confidence, leadership, and character.” But as historian Miya Carey reveals, the GSNC’s legacy is complicated by its historical exclusion of Black troops.

Members of the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia protest outside the White House in 1924

The Voteless Voters of Washington, D.C.

As we celebrate the Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial year, those of us in D.C. should also remember the women whose victory wasn’t assured in 1920. Our local story really isn’t about the large demonstrations down the Mall, or the women who protested outside the White House—the suffragettes of Washington were the Voteless Voters, who continued to fight long after the Amendment was ratified.

Portrait of John Quincy Adams ca. 1818

Anne Royall and the President's Clothes

When the stresses of life in Washington became too much, John Quincy Adams calmed his nerves by taking early-morning swims in the Potomac River. In a move that might be considered questionable by today’s standards, he especially liked to soak in the brisk, cold water wearing nothing but his own skin. According to local lore, it once got him into a bit of trouble: Anne Royall, a trailblazing journalist, caught him in a very awkward situation. But is there any truth in the tale?

“Porn Practically Overnight:” Adult Bookstores Make Washington Home

14th St. NW, 1972

Much like any city, Washington’s landscape is ever evolving, and the rise of gentrification has transformed many of the city’s neighborhoods. Take downtown 14th street, for example. Today, 14th street offers all the hangout spots a D.C. millennial yuppie might desire: hip bars, coffee shops, sleek gyms equipped with spin bikes... In the 1970s and 1980s, though, a less-conventional business threatened to displace the street’s small neighborhood shops: adult bookstores.

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