How a prominent black cemetery died

November 29, 2000

A TWO-YEAR restoration effort was recently completed at the 150-year-old African-American Ellsworth Cemetery near Westminster in Carroll County.

Unknown to most of those who were doing the restoring, the remains of Laurel Cemetery, Baltimore's famous African-American burial ground, also lie within their county.

During the first half of the 19th century, the majority of Baltimore's black population was buried in "colored burial grounds" owned by local churches. Many of the burial sites were near Gay Street, between Chase and Lanvale streets.

As early as 1822, Bethel AME, First Independent, Second Presbyterian and Trinity churches interred their parishioners in the Gay Street corridor. Sharp Street Methodist AME later followed, burying its parishioners in a plot on East Lanvale Street, near Belle Air Avenue.

In the late summer of 1851, Thomas Burgan, a wealthy local landowner, sold a parcel of property on Belle Air Avenue to three businessmen who planned to convert the land into a cemetery for the benefit of the "colored people of the city and county of Baltimore."

The cemetery, incorporated in July 1852 as Laurel Cemetery Co. became the first nonsectarian cemetery for the exclusive use of blacks in the Baltimore area.

The site made perfect sense. It was on a hill, just outside the North Avenue city boundary, that had been used for decades as a burial ground for the free and slave servants of local landowners. Before long, Laurel Hill became the premier cemetery for blacks in the area.

During the Civil War, the federal government seized a portion of Laurel Hill, bordering Belle Air Avenue, for use as a national cemetery. By 1866, 230 black Civil War veterans had been interred there.

Between 1886 and 1911, Baltimore City initiated several work projects that widened the Belle Air Avenue-Gay Street corridor. As a result, the "colored burial grounds" on Gay Street, as well as the black Civil War veterans in Laurel Hill, were moved.

A number of the remains from the Gay Street burial grounds were reinterred in Laurel Hill, while the Civil War veterans were moved to their current resting place in the National Cemetery on Frederick Avenue.

Over the next 70 years, numerous elaborate ceremonies accompanied the burial of the elite in Baltimore's black community. Despite the cemetery's importance, the absence of perpetual care on the part of caretakers and plot holders led to Laurel Hill's decline.

Indiscriminate dumping by neighbors only added to the cemetery's woes. By the 1940s, residents of the Belair-Edison community called for Laurel Hill's removal.

In 1957, two members of the state legislature introduced a bill to remove the cemetery, arguing that it had become a health hazard. After the legislation passed, members of the city's Law Department formed a dummy corporation and bought the cemetery, more than 30 acres of prime land, for $100.

Court action taken by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on behalf of several plot holders failed to halt the new owners' actions. By then it was too late. Bulldozers had overturned the grounds, paving the way for a future department store and adjoining parking lot. Through subsequent resale and legal maneuvering, the property was sold to Vornado Corp. (Two Guys retail stores) and ultimately valued at $250,000.

Food Depot, Maxway and the Disabled American Veterans thrift store now sit on property that was the original site of Laurel Cemetery in the 2500 block of Belair Road.

In all, fewer than 300 human remains were removed and placed, with their accompanying headstones, in a cornfield in Johnsville in Carroll County.

Continuing research by local genealogist Alma Moore has shown that more than 5,000 people were buried at Laurel Hill. Despite a number of reinterments between 1937 and 1958, it is safe to assume that thousands of remains were sealed beneath the parking lot and store that eventually were constructed on the site.

For many years after the cemetery's removal, human bones would occasionally be found protruding from the hill behind the department store. The bones ended up as souvenirs in the collections of local citizens.

Today, development has choked the small number of remains in Carroll County. Surrounded by housing, and covered with refuse, some of the grand citizens of Baltimore's past lie at rest. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters neglected -- not once, but twice.

Today's writer

Ralph Clayton is a research assistant at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and has written several books and numerous articles on pre-Civil War black Baltimore. He is working on a book that chronicles the domestic slave trade in Baltimore.

Metro Journal provides a forum for examining issues of concern to the Baltimore/metro area.

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