Protecting a family site

Fighting to protect family burial site Graveyard: Descendants of Whites and Kings gather in Howard County to oppose a road expansion onto their family's cemetery.

March 03, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Tucked between an asphalt plant and a construction company on Guilford Road in Howard County is the burial site of Kings.

They are the Kings who married into the Whites, one of the oldest - and, as surprised county officials now know, proudest - families in all of Maryland.

From far and wide, descendants of the Whites and Kings swarmed the county this week - not for a wedding, not for a funeral, but to protect the honor of their family. Their common foe: a road project.

As part of a planned widening of Guilford Road between Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, county officials have tentatively decided to cut about 30 feet into an open lot across from the Dorsey Run Business Center.

There's one problem. The lot is the family graveyard founded almost 200 years ago by the Whites, descendants of Puritans who lived at Jamestown and who became major Maryland landowners in the 18th and 19th centuries.

More important, it is the graveyard of a family that has remained genealogy-conscious over the years. When the county drew up blueprints showing the intrusion, it might as well have crossed a Mafia don, so strong was the family reaction.

With just a moment's notice, 20 family members came from as far as West Virginia and the Eastern Shore for a hearing this week on the road-widening proposal. Their message: Let us rest in peace.

"Whenever anything happens to that graveyard, we come out of the woodwork," Sylvia Crutchfield, a White descendant who lives in Alexandria, Va., said yesterday. "We may not all know how we're related to each other, but we know we're related to that graveyard."

The dispute has made for a stark clash between the bygone Maryland of rolling plantations and present industrial parks and interchanges. The one-acre graveyard was consecrated in 1829, at about the time William Firmadge King married Elizabeth White, whose family owned a large plantation, White's Contrivance, in what is today Savage.

The graveyard is all that remains of the estate. It is surrounded by four highways and an industrial zone that is, as descendant Edith Powers of Glen Dale puts it, "not the best setting to have a nice cemetery. It's not that pleasant to look around."

Yet the family has clung to it. Powers' father was buried there six years ago, and Powers and her two sisters, among others, plan to be interred there as well.

The hearing made for an unusual cross between a family get-together and a civic protest. One descendant brought a disposable camera to take family pictures, while another brought a tape recorder to document the testimony.

County officials running the meeting were clearly taken aback by the response: "I feel like I've held a family reunion," said Elizabeth Calia, a county engineer.

Calia explained that widening Guilford Road to five lanes is needed to accommodate the growth of the nearby National Business Park. She explained that it made more fiscal sense to take the new lanes from the graveyard since doing so on the opposite side, by the industrial park, would require building a retaining wall.

The county assumed, she added, that there were no actual graves in the swath to be lost to the widening.

Wrong, said the family. Family records show that there are at least 45 people buried at the cemetery, they said, but only 29 are named on headstones, suggesting that there could be unmarked graves closer to the road. In addition, they said, it's likely that the Whites and Kings buried slaves near the road.

"A lot of the family members you see here today want to be buried there," said Kathy King Kulick of Catharpin, Va. "We want to keep that cemetery."

Calia assured them she would study the family's records and hire an archaeologist to determine if there are remains in the targeted slice. But she could not promise the family that the county would avoid the graveyard entirely.

"We certainly believe we'll need some land from the cemetery. How much, we don't know yet," she said. "We have a lot of different interests here: business interests, cemetery interests and taxpayer interests. We cannot just arbitrarily increase the cost to taxpayers."

Family members appreciated this argument, but they said so many of the county's taxpayers were descended from the Whites that officials should not view the question as strictly economic.

"We're basically the original population of Howard and Anne Arundel counties," said Crutchfield.

State law appears to give public agencies the power to seize (in return for compensation) private graveyards to build roads, as long as they rebury affected remains.

But the law also prohibits agencies from doing anything that could restrict access to a graveyard. The family argues that expanding the road to five lanes will make it impossible for them to get in and out of the tiny dirt lane they use to enter the cemetery.

The family's best hope, members said, lies in mobilizing an even larger number of descendants, which shouldn't be hard. The clan, they said, is linked by the stories of their grand ancestors: the Puritan Whites who were expelled from Jamestown by the settlement's Anglican leaders; the Methodist aunt who turned the King fortune over to the English crown in the 18th century because her religion forbade accepting the money; Col. George Washington King of the Union Army, who is believed to be buried at the site.

But it is the graveyard itself that has done the most to bind the branches of the family tree.

"I don't know how many families out there are blessed to have a graveyard with this much history," said Kulick. "It's a very tangible thing that keeps us close."

Sun staff researchers Jean Packard and Sandy Levy contributed to this article.

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