Friday, October 22nd, 2010
“I was born in Mayfield, Kentucky and was raised in Memphis, Tennessee. When I finished college, I got a job with the Agency for International Development in Washington. I am a Republican and very involved in politics. At the time, I was asked to become the Executive Director of the National Young Republicans. When Richard Nixon left office, I was devastated and went home to Memphis in distress. I came back ten years later when I married my husband. We moved to Capitol Hill and have been here ever since.
This cemetery is full of stories about D.C. and our nation’s history.
“In 1984, my husband was working with the Congress and the president of the association that runs the Congressional Cemetery was a good friend of his. He said, ‘Paul, I need you and Cindy to come and help us clean the cemetery on Saturday.’ I thought that it would be a fun thing to do, so I showed up wearing sandals, shorts and I had my Japanese farmers knife, which is used for pulling weeds. We drove up in front of the cemetery and saw the terrible condition of the place. I said, this is not going to work. Take me back home. I put on boots, long pants and used a sickle, rather than a weeding tool, as the grass was above my knees.
“At the time, the cemetery had no money and nobody to keep it up. Most of the people who are buried here don’t have anyone left as we have been burying people since 1807. There used to be hookers in the east end and wild dogs in the west end and the drug dealers on the front of the property. An association was formed in 1974 to help take care of the place. The association sought help from Veterans Affairs and the National Parks Service, but both organizations could not help for different reasons. So, they decided to have a bake sale and raised $35. Then, they had a fundraiser at someone’s house and raised a few hundred dollars. Then, they had a Halloween party here and raised a few thousand dollars. Then, they sent out a letter to all of the people in the neighborhood to seek members. In 1978, the Association raised enough money to mow the grass three times a year. They couldn’t rake or do anything about the snow. The rest of the time, the mowing was done in pieces by volunteers.
“After I volunteered in 1984 and 1985, I did not come back to the cemetery until 2005. When I came back, I was stunned at how much the cemetery had changed. At the time, the association was looking for someone to manage and build upon the history of the cemetery and put out a request for proposals for an executive director. The vice chairman of the board, who I had met a number of times, asked if I would consider applying. I said, ‘I don’t want to run a cemetery.’ She said, it is more than just running a cemetery. I said, ‘Well, if I can do what I want to do, I’d love to take the job.’
“When I got here, there was one nice lady who answered the phone for four hours a day, three days a week. There are now seven of us. We are working to tell the stories of the people in this cemetery who made a difference in American history and for this city. There are 55,000 people buried here, including 1,200 veterans. This cemetery still has people who own plots, but haven’t used them because they are still alive. We bury around 12 people a year.
“When L’Enfant drew up plans for the city, the Southeast corner was called Reservation 13 and set aside for the insane asylum, the pauper’s house, the jail, and the hospital for the terminally ill and diseased. The cemeteries were established up near Takoma Park and in upper Southeast, but the location that was chosen for this cemetery was marshland. The U.S. government swapped the original location with a piece of Reservation 13. The cemetery was originally 4 1/2 acres. The first person buried was the master stone mason of the Capitol. The third person buried was the wife of the Commandant of the Navy Yard. The fifth person buried here was Senator Uriah Tracy. By 1812, we buried 12 members of the House and Senate and a Vice President and a number of Cabinet officials and military leaders. At that time, Congress declared us the Congressional burying ground because there was no embalming. When you died, you had to go someplace pretty fast. This was the only cemetery in the federal city.
“Probably our most famous person is the March King himself, John Philip Sousa. He was the very famous director of the Marine Corps Band. Matthew Brady was a photographer in the 1800’s who took pictures of the Civil War and also took the famous picture of Lincoln that is on the $5 bill. We also have J. Edgar Hoover buried here. Some people feel that he was not straight. I don’t know if that is true or not, but his longtime secretary, Clyde Tolson, who was number two in the FBI and his housemate and inherited all of his property bought a site as close to Hoover as he could get, which was about 12 sites away. We also have Leonard Matlovich who was the first person kicked out to the army for being openly gay. His tombstone says, ‘When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.’
“We are still a secret in D.C. Even people on the Hill have no idea where this place is. For the last 40 years, we haven’t done anything to publicize ourselves. Until ten years ago, we were embarrassed about our condition. Now, we have specialized and general tours, pageants, plays and musicals. We are also developing materials to help D.C. students learn about the history of this city. There are 26 people buried in this cemetery for whom D.C. schools are named. We have the first ten mayors of the city buried here. We have the man who designed the Washington Monument. We have editors of the first and second newspapers here. We have Senators, Congressmen, and Vice Presidents. We have the guy who designed the Navy Yard and the man who ordered it burned, so that the British couldn’t get it. This cemetery is full of stories about D.C. and our nation’s history.”
Cindy Hays is the Executive Director of the Congressional Cemetery at 1801 E Street SE.