On behalf of dead, an amateur sleuth pursues buried truth

SEARCHING THE PAST

January 02, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Alma Moore spends most of her Saturdays in the Maryland Hall of Records, searching through the long lists of the dead.

She looks for death certificates with the names of her relatives, and the many, many others who were buried in the old Laurel Cemetery. Laurel was founded in 1852 as the city's first non-sectarian burial ground for blacks. The cemetery has long been gone, buried beneath the macadam and buildings of a shopping center across Belair Road from Clifton Park.

Alma Moore believes that most of the people whose names she's found remain buried under what is now the Channel-Farm Fresh-Ames shopping center. She's sampled four years, 1875 and 1876, 1885 and 1886, and found 4,000 people whose death certificates say they were buried in Laurel Cemetery.

Moore and Ralph Clayton, a colleague in Laurel research, believe as many as 7,000 persons may have been buried at the graveyard during the century it was on Belair Road.

In an article published in Agnes Callum's genealogical journal "Flowers of the Field," Moore and Clayton, an Enoch Pratt librarian, closely analyzed the land deal that led to the demise of the cemetery 30 years ago.

Laurel was already more than 100 years old when a band of city law officials and real estate operators formed a corporation to buy the cemetery for themselves in 1958.

With the help of legislation initiated by Marvin Mandel, then leader of the city delegation to Annapolis and later governor, the corporation acquired title to the cemetery. They bought the prime site on Belair Road for $100 in an audacious and complex land-acquisition coup.

They still owned the land in 1962 when the planning commission permitted Two Guys to build a store and parking lot on the site. The assessed value a year later was $229,660 for the land and $426,600 for improvements.

The speculators, meanwhile, had hired an undertaker to move the uprooted dead to a new Laurel Cemetery in Carroll County when they acquired the cemetery in 1958.

"But Ralph and I both went out there to look," Moore says. "If there were any graves there -- you know how graves sink in, it's not like that. To me they just set the stones there. I think there's nothing there."

The late Herbert O. Frisby, for years president of the Laurel Cemetery lot owners association, sued the developers, but lost.

"He knew where the new Laurel Cemetery was and he knew where the bodies were," Moore says. "It was two different places. That's what he said. It's my belief, and it was Mr. Frisby's belief that they were plowed under."

The NAACP later took up the plot holders' cause and went to court, but it lost, too.

Clement R. Mercaldo, an assistant city solicitor in 1958 and one of the architects of the land deal, says there probably are remains at the site.

"Not bodies," he says during a phone interview, "bones and things."

It was impossible to tell how many bodies were in there, Mercaldo says. Only "something like" 25 deeds to burial rights were on record, he says.

"About three or four hundred remains were put in boxes and removed," he says. "They were buried up in Carroll County."

HE DUG THE HOLES

The speculators bought 4 1/2 acres of Carroll County farmland for a new Laurel Cemetery from a man named Norman Collins. His son, also named Norman, helped with the relocation and he remembers it well.

"I know exactly how many bodies were moved," the son says. "I know from actually being there. I dug holes for 90 percent of those bodies."

Collins figures eight to 12 full bodies were moved from Belair Road to Carroll County. "The rest were all partial bodies," he says. "Most of those here got only two-foot by two-foot boxes. A couple of hundred of them."

"Two hundred?"

"That's what a couple of hundred is, ain't it?"

In a century-old cemetery, he says, you don't find anything but casket handles, or a skull and bones, or a set of teeth.

"They never went through the whole damn thing," Collins says. "After a week and a half they just started picking up stones."

The younger Norman Collins is 66 now and still digs graves. He lives near Sykesville at Gaither. He leads the way to the "new" burial ground on Hodges Road, a two-line blacktop that dead-ends at the Liberty Reservoir watershed.

The cemetery is set back off the road about 30 yards, battered and abandoned-looking, overgrown with briars, vines, brambles and about 30 years' growth of scraggly underbrush and scrubby trees.

Many tombstones at the new cemetery mark nothing at all but memories: the ground beneath them is empty, Collins says.

He agrees that remains may be still buried at the old graveyard site on Belair Road. "There or on the city dump," he says.

By 1958, the old Laurel Cemetery had been abused and neglected for decades. The lot owners were poor, unorganized, and second-class citizens in a segregated city. There was little perpetual care. The cemetery was unsightly, overgrown, vandalized and disheveled. Neighbors said it was unsafe and unhealthy. Kids played among the tombstones and crypts.

LAST BURIAL IN 1957

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