St. Mary's Cemetery rededicated

October 18, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

White and black, they stood in a circle and prayed for the dead.

But their prayers yesterday were not just for the black men, women and children whose graves were disturbed by a developer's backhoe after repeated warnings about the Ellicott City burial site.

In rededicating St. Mary's Cemetery, the group also prayed for those whose graves were never marked, whose broken and diseased bodies were flung from the sides of slave ships, for those who died beneath the lash or took their own lives in defense of their dignity.

"We will remember them when a price is offered us for our own souls and the souls of our people," said the Rev. Bowyer G. Freeman, president of the Howard branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Speaking beneath the canopy of trees that covers the St. Mary's Cemetery, he proclaimed: "Let us here and now declare: Our heritage is not for sale!"

The group of 21 people, including descendants of those buried in the whites-only end of the cemetery, gathered next to the dug-up area to rededicate the cemetery, which had been sold to a developer by the Catholic Church and resold several times.

Contractors hired by the cemetery's most recent owner, H. Allen Becker, first dug holes and poured concrete foundations on the 3.2-acre site. Then, on July 20, the contractors unearthed several human bones about 25 feet from a pair of half-buried tombstones in the portion of the cemetery where blacks were buried.

Construction stopped July 22 when a backhoe unearthed remains a second time during excavation of a water and sewer easement.

"This remains a sacred burial ground, and we have come today to rededicate it as such," Mr. Freeman said.

But much remains to be done after the ceremony, said Sandra Pezzoli, president of the Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society. Residents created the society two years ago to oppose development of the site.

"It's frustrating where we are now. Obviously we haven't made much progress since July," Ms. Pezzoli said. The group has agreed to maintain the site after the county agreed to record the entire 3.2 acres in land records as a cemetery.

Although there were headstones at opposite ends of the segregated cemetery, the county and Mr. Becker assumed that burial plots were confined to those areas. Mr. Becker was building his houses on land between the two ends.

On Aug. 3, residents, county officials and Mr. Becker agreed there would be no more digging on the site, that the unearthed bodies would be reburied, and that the cemetery property would be restored to the condition that existed before the two house foundations were poured.

The bodies are now in the care of a Frederick archaeologist hired by the county. Plans to rebury them have not been made.

The agreement also called for Mr. Becker to exchange the cemetery property for county open space lots of equal value in the neighborhood.

The county is still negotiating this exchange, and a meeting with Mr. Becker on Friday yielded no agreement, said James Irvin, county public works director.

"There has been an incredible backlash against this gentleman building anywhere near their homes," Ms. Pezzoli told the group at the burial site yesterday.

No descendants of those buried in the black section of the cemetery attended yesterday's rededication.

"We've not been very successful in finding the descendants," Ms. Pezzoli said.

Jean Toomer, who heads a county human relations group, called attention to the diversity of the group fighting to preserve the cemetery.

"This is truly an example of people from different cultures working together for a common goal," she said.

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