Respect for eternal rest

Graves: George Murphy wants to return dignity to a forgotten cemetery in Carroll County.

January 04, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

George Murphy can stand amid broken, moss-covered tombstones in a forgotten cemetery and see history, art and a mystery he can solve.

Cemetery restoration has become a passion for Murphy, a teaching assistant at Liberty High School, environmental activist and sometime political candidate. The 52-year-old Eldersburg resident is about to take on Laurel Cemetery, a 3-acre graveyard in southern Carroll County with as many as 400 markers in disrepair.

"Laurel is a Victorian garden trapped inside a forest," he said. "I want to remove the forest and show the stones."

To clear this forest, Murphy will need chain saws, clippers, a dump truck, a backhoe and countless volunteers. He has enlisted Boy Scouts and several Liberty High students.

"We have taken a look at the disarray and decided it would be a great idea to clean it up," said Jim Anastastion Jr., leader of Boy Scout Troop 110, whose dozen members are on board with the project. "This is important because it is in our community. Maybe descendants of these families will visit."

In 1958, to pave the way for a shopping center near Belair Road and Edison Highway in Baltimore, the remains of about 300 African-Americans were removed from Laurel Cemetery, once one of the city's largest and oldest graveyards.

"Laurel Cemetery was at one time considered the most elegant and the largest cemetery in Baltimore," Murphy said. "It is a gem as far as monuments go."

The remains were reinterred in what was then a cornfield in the historically black community of Johnsville, north of Eldersburg. Two 16-foot stone pillars marked the entrance and the graves were placed in rows off a central pathway.

Within a few years, the new cemetery, also called Laurel, was all but forgotten.

Saving the cemetery is a daunting task, Murphy acknowledges. Every stone will have to be lifted - some with a crane - so that the bases can be replaced. Most monuments have settled and then toppled over. Some have sunk more than two feet into the ground. Smaller ones may have sunk completely beneath the surface.

"The contractor hired when the graves were moved here probably could have done a better job, or so many of these stones would not be lying on the ground," Murphy said. "I doubt there are real bases under the ground, or they would not be so flat."

Murphy calls Laurel "a real jigsaw puzzle, with several hundred stones of every different size and shape."

"There are at least 16 rows of graves on each side of a central pathway and they look to be in a straight line," he said. "I think we are looking at 400 graves to fix."

Murphy frequently has had to shoo deer from the cemetery, nestled in an overgrown stand of trees several hundred yards off Hodges Road. The property is hidden from view and unknown to many residents of the homes in the neighborhood. Seclusion has saved it from vandals and thieves, the fate of many abandoned cemeteries.

Residents dump their yard waste onto the grounds, probably unaware that it is a cemetery. Even the taller stones are covered with underbrush and weeds.

Most of the remains date from the 19th century, and the graves probably went untended once remains were moved to Eldersburg. Most of those interred have no ties to Carroll families.

"There is a lot of history in these cemeteries and we, as African-Americans, need to follow up on whatever information is available on our ancestors," said Phyllis Black, president of the Carroll County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It is our responsibility to do something. George has given us hope that we can do something."

Murphy has completed a successful two-year effort to restore 200 stones and the grounds of Ellsworth Cemetery in Westminster, once the only graveyard for African-Americans in Carroll County. His efforts led to a survey of Ellsworth, refurbished stones and new marble markers on many graves. Repairing Ellsworth - the final resting place of former slaves, veterans of conflicts from the Civil War through World War II, and many prominent black families who lent their names to towns throughout Carroll - won community support. Murphy is confident that the Laurel restoration will, too.

First he must research the ownership, hoping to find descendants of the last agent of Laurel Cemetery Co. Then the Hodges Road property would be surveyed to mark property lines and establish a perimeter. Fences would be installed to protect the grounds.

Several tall cedars would remain, but volunteers would remove many of the trees and clear weeds and brush. "Once we remove the trees, we can get to the stones," he said. "We will need a crane to lift some of them."

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