One family fights for its heritage

Graves: Relatives of a prominent black figure in Annapolis history say a plot slated for development contains their family cemetery.

January 04, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

In 1871, a free black man named London Pinkney purchased 89 acres on a secluded peninsula along the quiet waters of Back Creek in Annapolis.

During the past century, the land Pinkney farmed has been sold and developed into suburban communities -- except for a small waterfront lot at 391 Georgetown Road that was sold out of the family in 1957 and remained vacant.

But a plan to build a house on this lot has ignited a fight over what some see as a slight to the prominent role the family played in the city's history because descendants believe the land might be the family's cemetery.

The owner's plans to build a single-family house on the lot has touched off protests from members of the Annapolis-area black community. Opponents say the site should be preserved because the Pinkneys marked the parcel in land records in 1888 as a family cemetery. They believe human remains are buried there, and they want the lot converted into a memorial to one of the city's first prominent black families.

"A free slave purchasing that amount of property at that time? He had to have been an outstanding citizen," said Odessa Pinkney Ellis, 53, one of at least 30 Pinkney descendants living in the Annapolis area. "Annapolis is a historic town, and we have all this history here, but we don't often emphasize the African-American part of that. We have a story to tell."

The dispute began brewing several months ago when residents of the community next to the lot discovered owner Walter Czerwinski's plans to build a house on the two-thirds of an acre parcel. The residents alerted George Phelps, president of the Brewer Hill Cemetery Association in Annapolis, who is black, and word spread in the black community.

Pinkney is a well-known name in the black community because London Pinkney was one of the founders of Mount Moriah Church on Franklin Street. Founded in 1875, it was one of Annapolis' first black churches. Pinkney also is the name of a narrow street near the City Dock where blacks lived at the turn of the century. It was named after one of Pinkney's sons, who built the first house on the street.

The city Board of Appeals is considering the application for a variance Czerwinski needs to build the house. The board is expected to announce its decision today. Czerwinski could not be reached for comment.

Although the parcel has been listed as a cemetery in land records dating to 1888 -- when London Pinkney's children divided his land among themselves -- city planners say they are unsure whether human remains are buried on the property.

Jacqueline Rouse, a senior planner with the Annapolis Planning and Zoning Department, said the city approved a permit to build on the site in the late 1980s, when a previous owner planned to construct a house on the lot.

Rouse said the city approved the permit after the Maryland Historical Trust reported "no visible evidence that there has ever been any human burial there." The state preservation organization recommended conducting an archaeological dig on the site to determine the truth.

The owner did not build on the parcel, now overgrown with wild grass and trees but with no signs of gravestones or markers. Czerwinski bought the land in 1990.

Richard B. Hughes, chief of the Maryland Historical Trust Office of Archaeology, said it is common for old cemeteries to lack gravestones after more than a century.

"Many early African-American cemeteries often did not have formal markers, but the Pinkneys were a family with means," he said. "In a family this well off, you would think there would be some sort of markers, but the thing is, those tend to disappear over time because of vandalism or anything like that. It is very, very common that in small cemeteries the markers disappear."

Hughes, who studied the parcel's records for 1888 to 1987 recently at a resident's request, said he did not find any records that "absolutely confirmed" people were buried in the site, but he said he thinks it is likely.

"It's referred to as a burial ground as far back as 100 years ago and consistently gets referred to as that for a century," Hughes said, noting that the 1888 land record also specified that Pinkney descendants would have the right to visit the cemetery.

"It's hard to believe that they would have wanted that right specified in the land records unless their family was buried there," Hughes said.

Jeff Torney, a city planner overseeing Czerwinski's application, said he had not heard about the possibility of human remains on the site until a Board of Appeals hearing last month at which Phelps and his niece Janice Williams, who has studied the parcel's records, argued against the construction.

Phelps, 72, who was born and raised in Annapolis, said he grew up hearing about the Pinkney family ownership of the land near Back Creek and learned about the cemetery later.

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