Church seeks aid for old cemetery

Black graveyard victim of vandalism, neglect

May 16, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

An African-American church in Westminster has asked state legislators and preservationists to help save its historic cemetery from ruin.

On a tour Friday of Ellsworth Cemetery, Richard B. Hughes, chief of the Office of Archaeology for the Maryland Historic Trust, pledged technical support but stopped short of offering money for the restoration of the final resting place of veterans, former slaves and many of Carroll County's African-American leaders.

"Money has not traditionally gone to cemeteries," Hughes said. "There are so many of them they would eat us up."

Sen. Larry E. Haines, chair of the county's legislative delegation, also pledged his support "in whatever I can do to help."

Haines, Hughes and several others walked among the gravestones in the Leidy Road cemetery, off Route 140 in Westminster. The Rev. James Hinton, pastor of Union Memorial Baptist Church, which owns the property, and several volunteers showed the group how the oldest black graveyard in Carroll County has fallen victim to vandals, time and neglect.

Tombstones, some that date back 150 years, are toppled and broken; markers have been removed and carvings are defaced.

"The vandalism just does not stop," said George Murphy, an Eldersburg resident who also has volunteered in the effort and visits the site frequently. "In just the last three months, several more stones have been destroyed. We need to restore and protect this place."

Neglect has also played a role. The church, in one of Westminster's poorest neighborhoods, devotes most of its time and energy to outreach. The grass at Ellsworth is unmowed and weeds choke any flowers that might bloom. All 200 grave sites are filled; the last funeral there was nearly 20 years ago.

"We just don't have the funds," said Hinton, who used to cut the grass with a push mower. "Our resources have just run out. Many of the families who used to care for this place have died out."

Murphy, who helped save four cemeteries in Baltimore County, would like Ellsworth to receive landmark status, making it eligible for preservation funds.

"We need to get this place enrolled," said Murphy. "We need to keep trespassers out and restore and protect Ellsworth."

Murphy is preparing applications to the National Historic Trust and to state organizations, hoping for restoration funds.

He has also written to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has supported several preservation projects.

Ellsworth may also be eligible for Save Our Treasures funding, but that money will not be available until 2000, said Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale, a Westminster Republican. She suggested talking with veterans groups, which are often willing to assist in preserving gravesites of their comrades.

About $50,000 is needed for the restoration effort, Murphy said. That would include a survey of the 1.2 acres to determine the location of all 200 graves, many of which predate the Civil War.

"Once a place starts looking cared for, it is less likely to attract vandals," said Nancy Kurtz, monuments survey administrator for the Maryland Historical Trust. "Now it looks like no one cares."

Alice Green, a member of Union Memorial Baptist, has researched the cemetery through recollections of the congregation and archives of the Historical Society of Carroll County.

Green is certain former slaves and veterans of every war are interred in Ellsworth. She has carefully preserved the church records.

One details the Rev. John Baptist Snowden, who died in 1884 at age 85. He earned his freedom from slavery in 1828. His grandmother, Mitta Banikee, was an African princess stolen by slave traders and brought to the United States. The Snowden family monument, an 8-foot obelisk, has been toppled. Its graceful finial lies several feet away.

Murphy has information about a Civil War veteran buried at Ellsworth but has been unable to locate the grave.

"I desperately want to find him and mark his grave," he said.

"We have people born into bondage here and some who served in the Union Army. To have their resting place forgotten is appalling."

Hughes and Kurtz thanked the volunteers and lingered at the cemetery.

"We will think about what we can do," Hughes said. "You got the ball rolling."

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