Burials halted at rundown cemetery Baltimore orders church that runs Mount Auburn to draft management plan

April 10, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Amid mounting complaints about broken tombstones, sunken graves and protruding bones, Baltimore officials put a temporary halt yesterday on burials at a historic black cemetery.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, a long-neglected graveyard that was once the only one for Baltimore African-Americans, also was ordered to come up with a management plan by May 3.

Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, which operates the cemetery, agreed to improve the upkeep after the city health commissioner picked his way through overgrown weeds to inspect bones and a skull sticking out of dug-up earth.

"If my family were buried there, I'd be outraged," said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the health commissioner. "It's terribly disrespectful. It looks like they just bulldozed up graves and put in new caskets. The place is in a deplorable condition."

The exposed graves and old caskets do not pose a health hazard, Beilenson said. But the housing chief, Daniel P. Henson III, determined that the graveyard's disintegration violated city sanitation laws.

The city's action pleased community leaders who have fought for years to restore the 33-acre cemetery that is perched on a hill in South Baltimore and overlooks the Inner Harbor skyline and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge.

"It's the first step," said Eric Easton, whose grandparents and two brothers are buried in Mount Auburn. "What's amazing is our community has let it turn into the state it has. It's time for the politicians and the business community to do something. The situation exists because people have been turning their heads."

Once called the "City of the Dead for Colored People," Mount Auburn was opened by the Sharp Street church in 1872. Slaves who used the Underground Railroad to escape to freedom are buried there. So are black soldiers from the Civil War and many prominent African-Americans, including Joseph Gans, the first black lightweight boxing champion, and William Asbie Hawkins, the first black to run for the U.S. Senate.

But after prospering for years, the cemetery fell into disrepair. In 1993, Mount Auburn was revamped at a cost of $26,000, but two years later, it was in bad shape again. More than 200 volunteers cleaned it up then. Now, another volunteer cleanup is scheduled for May 3.

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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