History lies sleeping

Rescue: Many hope Mount Auburn Cemetery can be preserved before an African-American landmark is lost.

February 09, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The bodies resting under tall weeds and mounds of snow in Baltimore's oldest African-American cemetery are the former slaves, ministers, athletes and entrepreneurs who laid the foundation for the city's black community.

But you wouldn't know from the look of it.

The headstone of light heavyweight boxing champ Joseph Gans is prominent and well-kept at Mount Auburn Cemetery. But nearby stones of lesser-knowns are chipped and crooked. News reports from the past three decades have documented horrific conditions at what was once called "The City of the Dead for Colored People," including caskets and human remains periodically emerging from the earth.

To help the Baltimore landmark, yesterday the governor's office and the city approved the nomination of Mount Auburn to the National Register of Historic Places. If all goes according to plan, it should be on the register in the spring, said Peter Kurtze of the Maryland Historical Trust.

With that, the south Baltimore cemetery can put up a sign telling the world to take notice, this is someplace important. And it would be eligible for much-needed federal grants to clean up the grounds.

"You ride by and it's heartbreaking," said state Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Democrat who represents the area. "They clean it up one month and it's overgrown the next."

The first of the more than 48,000 people resting in the 33 acres of Mount Auburn were buried in 1872, when they could not be interred next to whites. Then it became tradition.

Now, taking a stroll through the cemetery is like stepping into a well-worn time capsule of firsts in Baltimore's black community: first woman doctor (Louise Young), first sergeant during World War I (Jerome B. Young), first editor and founder of the Afro-American, Baltimore's African-American newspaper (John Henry Murphy).

Mike Tyson came to pay homage to boxing great Gans a few years ago.

The cemetery has been unkempt over the years because the 250-member Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, which owns the cemetery, doesn't have the money to keep up the grounds. The church has made several earnest cleanup attempts, but nothing with a lasting effect.

"There are only so many chicken dinners you can have," said Sheridan Allmond, chairwoman of the board of directors for Mount Auburn.

Allmond estimates it would take $25,000 a year to maintain it properly; the church is currently spending about half of that.

The lack of money shows. The ground is too soft, the chain-link fence is worn, the road is uneven and too many headstones are leaning.

"It's in dire straits, it's an embarrassment," said Philip J. Merrill, a historian of African-American history. "We're not taking care of our sacred grounds."

Sharp Street historian Dorothy Dougherty said every black person with roots in Baltimore identifies with the cemetery and knows someone buried there.

"There's no excuse not to," she said. "This is our history, our heritage, our roots. It's ownership for the African-American community. It's evidence that we as a people have made major contributions."

Nine members of 90-year-old Ernest Gambrill's Baltimore family rest at Mount Auburn. Gambrill, who worked as an engineer for the Maryland Department of Education, will be buried in a different cemetery because his family plot is full.

But would he want to be there if there were space?

"Oh, I don't know about that today," he hedged uneasily. "It's not as well kept as we expected."

Last month, Alfreda Hughes became irate when there was a problem burying her mother, Blanche Dogan Hughes, next to her father. As the gravedigger probed the plot, he found an unexpected casket next to her father.

"We have no idea who that person is," Hughes said.

The remains of Hughes' mother -- she who best known in the community for helping to save Baltimore's historic Orchard Street Church -- were kept in refrigeration for three weeks until Hughes' sister and the cemetery decided on a site inches away from the other casket.

The Rev. Bruce Haskins, pastor at Sharp Street, said if he can get federal funding, he wants to computerize the cemetery's records, many of which are handwritten from decades ago. He also wants to make a map of who is buried where, and fix the ground, which unpredictably shifts and sinks.

There is only one employee, Collis Jackson, who cuts the 33 acres of grass and tends the land.

"It's extremely hard to do by myself," Jackson said. "When I first got here two years ago, the grass was taller than me and I'm 5 foot 11."

The grass is now shorter than Jackson, but not short enough to calm the controversy.

Even in Mount Winans, the economically disadvantaged area next to the cemetery, residents think the cemetery's sagging fence, overgrown weeds and tilted headstones are bringing down the community.

"It's an eyesore and we want to help clean it up," said Ann Robinson, president of the Mount Winans Community Association. "It borders our community and it could look much better."

It was briefly taken over by a private contractor in the 1980s, but Sharp Street was not happy with the contractor and took it back, said Haskins.

Dougherty said the cemetery started to decline after racial segregation ended and the church lost some of its economic base.

"I don't believe it began to deteriorate because of neglect," Dougherty said.

Carolyn Jacobi emphatically disagrees.

She says her father was buried there in 1970, but she can't find his grave.

Jacobi went there for the first time in 1994 to look for it, but in the spot where she thought she'd find it, she said she saw something else on the ground: a skull.

After not being able to locate her father in 1994, Jacobi began traveling the country to investigate cemeteries and crusading to educate the public.

"Cemeteries predominantly used by poor and minorities are most often victimized," she said. "With Mount Auburn it breaks my heart because there's so much history there."

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.