Finding dignity in death

Cemetery: A group wants the names of buried Crownsville Hospital Center patients displayed.

May 16, 2001|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

In a grove of tall trees shading a gentle slope, the stone slabs are flat on the ground in crooked rows. They vary in size; some are cracked. Most have numbers that appear to have been crudely etched in wet cement with a stick; some have names.

Buried here are people once known as the feeble-minded, the idiots, the imbeciles. They died as patients at Crownsville Hospital Center, opened in 1911 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane on 560 acres of farmland in Anne Arundel County.

With no sign to mark the burial grounds and no names to identify the dead, the cemetery holds the graves where as many as 3,000 former Crownsville patients were laid to rest before 1957 and largely forgotten. They were society's unwanted - not only the black mentally ill, but also those suffering from tuberculosis and syphilis, alcoholics, the homeless and the elderly.

"There is something that overcomes you when you stand on that hill - a sadness and feeling of neglect," said Janice Hayes-Williams, a historian who is part of a group working to tell the story of the cemetery and, in the telling, restore some of the dignity taken from the people buried there.

"Because those people were ill, they were forgotten," Hayes-Williams said. "Not only forgotten, but put in the ground with no name on their stone, no dignity to their life whatsoever. When we went up there, we knew at that moment that this was something we wanted to be a part of."

"It's a resurrection of a people and a way to say, `You're not forgotten,'" she said.

The group intends to search years of death certificates to name the buried Crownsville patients. Members also hope to create a computer database of burial records for use by relatives, and maybe a museum.

Dennis Dupont, the chaplain at Crownsville, said the cemetery project probably will shed light on a dark side of the state's history, but could bring healing as well.

"It represents deep racism and prejudice toward the mentally ill," Dupont said. "Those are two things we don't want to address even today in our culture."

Heading the cemetery restoration effort is George Phelps Jr., 74, who initiated a restoration and cleanup project 11 years ago at Brewer Hill Cemetery in Annapolis, the city's oldest African-American cemetery.

"We have 74 African-American churches in Anne Arundel County, and they don't know about this" [Crownsville cemetery], said Phelps, president of the Brewer Hill Cemetery Association and a community liaison officer with Anne Arundel's police department. "It's time for the truth to be told; sometimes the graves can speak."

Much of the cleaning of the 10-acre cemetery was done over the past 2 1/2 years, supervised by Sylvia Beale, Crownsville's director of volunteer services. On spring weekends, volunteers cleared weeds to uncover gravestones and secured grave markers.

Phelps' cemetery committee wants to take the restoration to the next level. Besides determining who's buried there, they plan to build a fence and a monument at the site and replace the dirt road to the cemetery with a paved road.

The committee plans to raise money for these projects through donations solicited from African-American churches and with foundation and state grants. They have a track record, having raised $90,000 for the Brewer Hill project.

To organizers of the Crownsville cemetery project, anonymous burial in the woods was the final dehumanization of a life.

In the years before burials stopped at the cemetery, many patients lived at Crownsville in overcrowded, unsanitary quarters and received no psychiatric treatment. Conditions were not much better at state institutions for whites, but as the catchall facility for the mentally ill and outcasts among Maryland's black population, Crownsville fell behind other psychiatric hospitals.

"This was a place you could put family members if they had syphilis or other diseases, and you didn't want people around town to know about it," said Hayes-Williams, who is Phelps' niece.

Patients might have been used for medical research, a practice that hospital officials said occurred at other psychiatric hospitals across the country.

"A lot of these people had electroshock [therapy] in such an intense fashion that it left burn marks on their temples," said cemetery committee member Antonio A. Brown, an Annapolis community activist.

The hospital was founded in 1910, when the General Assembly allocated $100,000 to buy land in Crownsville and build the hospital. It was intended to serve patients from throughout the state.

Crownsville's first patients were transferred from Spring Grove State Hospital in Catonsville and asylums and jails in the Baltimore area. Over the next two years, more than 120 patients living in a tent work camp cleared the land for the construction of the first permanent building. In 1912, the state legislature changed the name of the facility to Crownsville State Hospital.

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