Historic Annapolis cemetery gets face lift Community celebrates Brewer Hill restoration

October 25, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

There are new signs of life in Annapolis' historic Brewer Hill Cemetery, and yesterday dozens gathered on the hallowed ground to celebrate them.

Chrysanthemums line a new gravel path, hundreds of stone markers have been cleaned and straightened. Grass covers patches of dirt once so eroded that caskets poked out of graves and skeletons lay exposed.

Such vital signs attest to the efforts of descendants to undo years of neglect and deterioration at Brewer Hill, the state capital's first black burial site.

"This is what you call a rebirth, you see?" said the Rev. Floyd Snowden, 82, a native Annapolitan whose grandparents are buried in Brewer Hill. "This cemetery shows that there were those in the past who made contributions to good living here.

"This represents life," Snowden said.

Many Annapolis residents can call themselves descendants of the 7,000 buried in what was known as the Brewer Hill Cemetery for Colored People of Anne Arundel County, said George Phelps Jr., 72, president of the Brewer Hill Cemetery Association, a group of 27 members started in 1990 to restore the site.

With a price of $90,000, the restoration became a community effort. Norman Cully held several fish fries to raise money. Terrence Wright planted flowers on weekends. His grandmother, Katrina Wright, donated a plot for a flagpole. Students from Bates Middle School helped pull up sunken tombstones. Businessman Norvain Sharps, an Annapolis native, helped plant maple trees.

Volunteers weeded and replaced the bent metal fence with an 800-foot brick wall and a brick storage house by the front gate. And association members researched the history of the cemetery.

"Back then, black people had to be buried separately, too," said Phelps, whose grandfather and other relatives are buried there. "There is very little written about the labor, toil and frustration that African-Americans put into building this cemetery. It's sad because there are so many great people buried here.

"People interred here were dedicated, hard-working people. Landowners and business owners before integration. They were doctors, soldiers and matriarchs."

Brewer Hill is also the resting place of slaves owned by the city's wealthy. Their descendants and descendants of their owners have helped in the restoration. Soldiers from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both world wars and Korea are buried there because it was not until 1942 that black soldiers were allowed burial in the National Cemetery next door.

The graveyard, 4.5 acres off West Street near Taylor Avenue, was part of the estate of Circuit Judge Nicholas Brewer, who let prominent whites bury their slaves on the plot. One of the cemetery's oldest markers is dated 1789.

When the judge died in 1864, the land passed to his children, who continued the tradition until they sold the property in 1883 to 11 African-American men for $758.

The group incorporated as the Peoples Brewer Hill Cemetery Corporation of Anne Arundel and sold shares of the group for $25,000, which entitled members to burial plots.

Since then, the graveyard has welcomed people of both notoriety and respect.

John Snowden, hanged on Feb. 28, 1919, at the age of 28 for murdering a pregnant white woman, is buried at Brewer Hill. On the eve of the hanging, martial law was declared in Annapolis, machine guns were placed at the old jail and 42 Baltimore police officers were sent to patrol city streets.

Wiley H. Bates, a landowner and merchant who sold everything from silk to meat at his store at Cathedral and South streets, and city councilman, is buried at Brewer Hill. A white obelisk marks his grave. Before he died in 1935, he bought land on Smithfield Street to build what was the only high school for blacks in Annapolis.

William Bishop, a doctor who had the second largest medical practice in Annapolis and who founded Anne Arundel General Hospital, is buried at Brewer Hill.

But over the years, the original cemetery owners and their immediate descendants died. Many records disappeared, and the cemetery fell into disrepair until the association began its work.

Members continue to interview descendants and sift through church records, family archives and burial plot certificates. They also will work with historians and genealogists to help identify graves no longer marked or that never were marked with more than a cinder block or a pipe driven into the ground.

"To our group, we consider Brewer Hill Cemetery among the few places in Maryland where the direct descendants of the first African arrivals to these shores may be found," said Godfrey Blackstone, 73, a businessman and association member. "Thus, we consider ourselves recognizably aligned -- though black -- with the first families of Maryland."

As Emma Pickett, 66, the association vice president, repainted benches in preparation for yesterday's celebration, she said, "We are the souls entrusted with caring for this historic property.

"I am proud of this African-American cemetery and proud that African-Americans restored it," said Pickett, whose parents are buried there. "I am sure they're smiling down here at us."

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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