BOWIE, Md. (NEXSTAR) — A Catholic church in Bowie, Maryland is working to uncover the gravesites of hundreds of enslaved Black people buried on its grounds.
The Jesuits who started Sacred Heart Catholic Church also owned a tobacco plantation there dating back to the 18th century, but the history of slavery on the land is only recently coming to light.
“I hope her middle name was Anne, too, because that’s mine,” said Veronica Bryant, a descendant, as she paused from her leaf raking duties on the church grounds Monday.
Bryant is meeting family members for the first time, centuries after their deaths.
“This is our way of finding who we really are,” Bryant said.
Bryant’s journey to track down her ancestors, the Queen family, began at Sacred Heart.
“We came four years ago, and we found Monica,” Bryant said. “The brush was just tremendous so we lucked up on this one.”
On Monday, Bryant returned to the church with more family members, dozens of strangers and landscaping equipment, including a ground-penetrating radar system and chainsaws, to clear the land and discover even more.
“So she’s overseeing all of this,” Bryant said of her ancestor. “And I’m sure she’s smiling because we’re smiling.”
The Queen family’s story is one of hundreds that archaeologists, Catholic University students, churchgoers and other volunteers are working to uncover.
“I’m hopeful that we can document everyone who’s buried here, even if we don’t know their names,” said Dr. Laura Masur, an archaeologist and assistant professor of anthropology at Catholic University, who has been leading the cleanup and documentation efforts. “It’s not just about gathering data and learning about the past. It’s sort of shaping narratives, and I’m excited that the descendants can be the ones to direct the narratives.”
“We have to do better as a community in remembering what happened to people of color here in years gone by and make up for it,” said Temple Solel Rabbi Steve Weisman. “This is not Sacred Heart’s issue. It’s Bowie’s issue. It’s America’s issue.”
Unlike Monica Queen’s headstone, most of the gravesites are not marked by anything more than a rock.
“Those are the most emotional ones,” Bryant said. “But even though there’s sadness, there’s joy. This is our way of saying thank you for your sacrifices.”
There is now talk of constructing a memorial of some kind at the site, as well as the potential of reparations for the descendants. But for Bryant, it is only about one thing.
“We won’t ever be able to put a price on what we found,” she said. “And that’s the fact that we found family.”
Masur expects mapping out the hundreds of gravesites to take most of the year to complete.