Vandals, time take toll on cemetery

At Carroll Co. graveyard, `everything is precious'

February 28, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The broken tombstones and sunken graves at Ellsworth Cemetery are telling signs that the oldest black graveyard in Carroll County may not survive into the next century.

The cemetery on Leidy Road near Route 140 in eastern Westminster dates back nearly 150 years and was for decades the only place where African-American families could bury their loved ones.

Former slaves, veterans from both world wars and generations who have lent their names to roads and towns in Carroll are interred there.

The names Elders, Shipley, Bruce and Warfield belong to families whose members are buried at Ellsworth. David W. Dorsey, a U.S. infantryman who fought in World War I and died in 1944, also is buried there.

"The sun strikes Dorsey's tombstone first," said the Rev. James Hinton, pastor of Union Memorial Baptist Church, which holds the original deed to the cemetery and is responsible for it.

The cemetery is "probably named after somebody, but who knows who," said Alice Green, the church historian. No Ellsworths are listed in church records or on tombstones. But an Ellsworth could be interred in one of about 100 unmarked graves or on Strangers Row -- a line of graves at the far edge of the cemetery.

"It filled up the quickest with those with no family connections," Green said.

To keep track of the plots, the church named each row, usually after a state. Green, a 70-year-old grandmother, remembers how often grieving families would stare at a drawing of the grave plats and say, "We can bury him on Atlantic Avenue," or, "There's room in Kansas."

The cemetery is now out of space for new graves.

Descendants once took pride in the spot, which holds 200 graves. They kept the grass mowed and the graves protected from vandals. Today, plastic flowers grace a few markers, but the overall look is one of abandonment.

"During my day, everyone knew each other and most of the people buried here," Green said. "There was much more interest. Men would work with hand tools pulling trees and briers. Women would prepare meals for them."

Nearly all of the county's black families at the turn of the century had a plot.

"People were deprived, but we considered ourselves blessed to come out here and work on this place," said Green. "We knew we were segregated, but we weren't filled with hatred. This was our place.

"I can still hear the older people talking," she said. "They made sure we kids knew family."

Separations

Many of those families have moved away. Only about 40 headstones are standing today, and several of them lean precariously. Many have tumbled over or were pushed down by vandals. It will take heavy equipment to lift the larger ones.

African-American churches are so involved in outreach ministries that they have little money for cemetery preservation, said Hinton, so Ellsworth has fallen into disrepair.

Records at the Historical Society of Carroll County show that John H. Reese, a Carroll merchant, donated the 1.16 acres for the cemetery to the church in 1894. Many markers predate that year; Green said congregations must have been using the property long before the land transfer. Many of those interred are former slaves.

"Before Ellsworth, those people were just put into the ground somewhere," said Hinton.

Many markers are a small square of marble etched with a single letter, "probably children," said Hinton.

Edith Forina Clements lived less than a decade -- the last number on the year she died is worn away. But her epitaph is clear: "Budded on earth to bloom in heaven."

People often call Green to ask about their relatives. She has been able to chart names and locations of nearly all the graves. The historical society also did rubbings of all the stones.

The markers "take me down memory lane," said Green. "I remember standing here as a kid for my Uncle Clinton Cooper's burial in the 1940s."

The World War I veteran's grave once had a marker, but it is gone, probably destroyed by vandals, Green said. Surveying the marred and toppled tombstones, she asked, "What kind of anger does this?"

She looked in dismay at the latest vandalism. Pieces of a traditional round-topped marker are scattered at the edge of the cemetery. On one chunk is a gentle rose carved above the faded name.

"That beautiful marble has just been broken," said Hinton. "Somebody had to hit it. There are pieces everywhere."

Marble has been broken from the Powell family marker, and "somebody is trying to chip off the names," said Hinton.

A `precious' history

George Murphy of Eldersburg, who helped restore four cemeteries in Baltimore County, said Ellsworth can be saved. Experts can buff the stones and re-etch the names, he said.

"You can still recognize this as a cemetery," said Murphy. "Everything here is precious. We want to restore it and set it right. Let's make it something that everybody can take pride in again and fence it in to keep vandals out."

Cemeteries are rich sources of local history, he said: "Every piece of marble says something. Every depression in the ground means something."

Said Green, placing the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places could save it. She would add her memories to the existing records.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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