Protest planned at graveyard

July 21, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

The late, great Joe Gans -- Baltimore's first world boxing champion -- would turn over in his grave if he could see what's happened to the neighborhood.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Maryland's first black cemetery founded in 1872, where the turn-of-century lightweight is buried, is a wild mess and has been for a long time.

Sprawling over 33 hilly acres in Westport, it is a field of leaning monuments, tilted and turned-over tombstones. Weeds engulf grieving angels and obelisks; old graves are sinking away. Asphalt roads, eroding back to earth, disappear into forests of sumac. Now and again human remains appear: a shard of human skull was found on a depressed, unmarked grave yesterday evening.

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A demonstration is scheduled tomorrow morning at the cemetery to protest all this.

Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development, responding to a complaint this month, ordered the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, which owns the burial ground, to clean it up.

Carolyn Jacoby lodged the complaint. She is a woman who seems to have some of the pugnacity "the Old Master" himself, as Gans was known during his career.

She has made Mount Auburn a personal crusade. She has conducted public meetings and drafted an improvement program for the cemetery, last thoroughly trimmed two years ago. She organized tomorrow's protest. Its aim is to get the place restored. If that doesn't work, she said she would picket the church.

Ms. Jacoby is a purposeful woman with a loud voice. She wears a black straw hat and immense round glasses. She was stimulated to take up the cause of the cemetery, she said, "around Memorial Day," the day Mike Tyson came to pay his respects to Joe Gans, whose monument stands near the gate.

Ms. Jacoby said she offered her expertise in cemetery management (she helped run the Maryland National Memorial Park in Laurel for five years) to the Sharp Street Church, but was turned down. She describes herself as "an advocate for consumers in the cemetery industry." She visits Mount Auburn every day and it makes her angry.

Ms. Jacoby said she suspects the church is allowing the cemetery to go to seed so it can eventually be developed for housing. "It's prime land," she said. It is elevated, with a clear view of the Hanover Street Bridge spanning the Patapsco.

She believes that people are being buried in plots that are not their own because so much of the land is inaccessible owing to the overgrowth. She said she only recently learned her father is buried there, but has been unable to find him because of the church's scant records.

"Good cemeteries must keep accurate ledgers," she said. "Without ledgers you can't keep track of who owns what, or where it is."

The Rev. Bruce Haskins, the pastor at the Sharp Street church, dismissed Ms. Jacoby's allegations. The charge that the church is purposely neglecting the cemetery he called "an outright lie."

"It's not uncared for. It's just a lot to care for," he said. "It's not income producing as it once was."

Mr. Haskins came to the church a year ago. He said he inherited the mess, but that the church is trying to get the place improved. "We have a cleanup down there next Saturday," he said.

Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the housing department, said, "Parts of the cemetery have been cleaned up. We're seeing progress." Mr. Haskins defended the church's records. "The cemetery is old," he said. "Some of the books are old, the paper is old. That's another thing we're working on. It's a big job."

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