Volunteers helping reclaim area's oldest black cemetery

Vandals, weather and neglect took toll on graveyard

June 08, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Volunteers braved blistering heat, stinging bugs and prickly underbrush yesterday to rescue Carroll County's oldest black cemetery from near-ruin.

Ellsworth Cemetery in Westminster dates back more than 150 years. Buried in its 200 graves are former slaves, veterans of nearly every American war and generations of African-American families who have played roles in Carroll history.

For years, members of Union Memorial Baptist Church, which owns the property, had maintained the graveyard, but in recent decades its dwindling membership has devoted its energies to community outreach. Ellsworth became overgrown and fell victim to vandals.

Community activist George Murphy, church historian Alice Green and the Rev. James Hinton, Union Memorial's pastor, have led the effort to restore the cemetery.

"To me, a cemetery is a mirror to the future," said Green. "We have history to guide us."

As a child, Green remembers, she attended family funerals and community cleanups at Ellsworth.

"I was always with the older people, and now I know why," she said. "I am connected to the past and the future. When I think about the resources we have today, I am thankful to be alive and to be of help."

Vandals, weather and neglect have nearly destroyed the graveyard. Many headstones have toppled or are lost in the tall growth.

"We have this historic thing right here in Westminster," said 17-year-old Amanda O'Hara, raking piles of weeds. "It should be seen by everyone, not covered up with grass and weeds."

Amanda was among several Westminster High School students who spent their first day of summer vacation cleaning the cemetery on Leidy Road, just off Route 140.

"This is part of Westminster history, and it should be a historic landmark," said Jen Wilson, president of the Westminster High student senate. "The dead should be respected, not in a place where their gravestones are knocked over."

While clearing nearly 2 acres of thick brush and weeds, the group found and marked about 100 graves with bright yellow flags. Some stones were no more than small marble squares with a single initial. Other graves had sunk so deep that volunteers found them only when they tripped in the holes.

Soldier's grave found

Murphy discovered the crumbling headstone of Ephraim P. Smith, who fought for the Union during the Civil War and died in 1902 at age 75.

Murphy knew from research that Smith was buried at Ellsworth, but he had no clues to where the soldier's grave was.

"I found Ephraim!" Murphy shouted. He then surrounded the toppled marker with several small American flags.

"From a historical point, this is the most interesting grave," said Murphy.

An ornamental piece is missing from the top of Smith's monument, but Murphy said he will replace it.

The eroded etching in the marble reads that Maggie Smith dedicated the stone to her husband, adding, "We remember him." A single, small stone nearby is probably Maggie Smith's marker, said Murphy.

Teachers, police officers and three generations of one family were among about 30 volunteers.

`Four generations'

"I guess you could say four generations are here today," said 17-year-old Linnea Randolph. "I found out my great-grandfather is buried here."

Linnea is president of Westminster High's We the People multicultural club and a member of Union Memorial Baptist Church.

"Somebody is remembering these people today, cleaning their graves instead of destroying them," she said.

Linnea's science teacher worked beside her. Elizabeth Hiebert hacked at tall clumps of weeds with manual clippers. She said she welcomed the opportunity to set an example for her students.

"These kids are aware that they can make a difference in all the adversity that surrounds us," Hiebert said. "We are learning from our children. It is such a pleasure to be witnessing history in the making."

Joel Rosen, an agriscience instructor at the school, was operating a gasoline-powered weed chopper. Without continuing maintenance, he said, the weeds will quickly grow back. He recommended spreading a herbicide to cut down on weed growth and then reseeding the grass.

Jeff Ibex, faculty adviser to Westminster High's student senate, said the group will make Ellsworth its community service project next year and pay for signs marking the entrance to the cemetery.

"You have veterans here all the way back to the Civil War," said Ibex. "There is history all around us. All you have to do is read the names and dates to find out."

The grounds should be fairly easy to maintain once all the grave sites are re-established, said Murphy, who donated nearly $1,000 to survey the property and find the remaining graves.

"The drought will keep the grass down for now," said Murphy. "From here on out, people will be doing something to maintain this place."

That includes the state police. 1st Sgt. Dean Richardson was scheduled for the evening shift yesterday at the Westminster barracks. He was mowing weeds all morning at the cemetery.

"If it looks like the cemetery is being kept up and means something to the community, maybe vandals won't bother with it," said Richardson.

The police are contacting neighbors in the area and patrolling the property, he said.

"We want to deter vandalism, and we will prosecute to the fullest extent," he said.

Pub Date: 6/08/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.