Students spend morning in cleanup of cemetery

UMBC volunteers pull weeds, pick up trash at Mount Auburn

September 02, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Her college career all of four days old, Soumi Saha boarded a yellow bus yesterday at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus in Catonsville and stepped off on a forlorn Baltimore block facing 33 acres of weeds.

Her orders: Pick them. By hand.

The Edison, N.J., native jumped to the task. "We had to do something," she said. "It was crazy."

Saha, 18, and about 80 other UMBC students, community workers and neighborhood youngsters spent yesterday morning clearing vegetation, righting toppled headstones and soaking in the secrets of Mount Auburn Cemetery, the historic African-American burial ground in the southern part of the city. The cemetery has been largely neglected for decades.

Mowers, trimmers and hedge-clippers were in short supply. So most of the students used their hands, filling 64 trash bags with candy wrappers, soda cans and brush. They wiped moist brown earth from hidden grave markers and propped sagging monuments with makeshift foundations.

"It looks so much better after just a couple of hours," said Kate Caimano, 18, of Bucks County, Pa.

On a day when their peers throughout the country were nursing hangovers or painting faces for the season's first foot- ball games, these college students were seeking satisfaction through community service.

The cemetery cleanup was organized by the Shriver Center, the 8-year-old UMBC program named for Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver. It was the first time a volunteer event was scheduled during the first week of school, said Mark Terranova, the center's coordinator of community service and learning.

"It's an introduction to campus life and the greater Baltimore area," said Terranova, adding that the event drew about three times the turnout he expected.

The Shriver Center runs an after-school program at Westport Elementary, near the cemetery. It soon became clear that the graveyard also needed attention.

"In getting to know the community, we came across this need," Terranova said.

The city's oldest cemetery for blacks, Mount Auburn was founded in 1871 on 33 acres purchased by what is now Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church.

Among the 48,000-plus buried there: Dr. Louse Young, Baltimore's first black woman doctor; Jerome B. Young, the first African-American promoted to sergeant during World War I; and Lillie Carroll Jackson, president of the city branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1935 to 1970.

But the grounds belie the history that lies beneath them. The church no longer has the money to maintain the cemetery, and some have called its condition - leaning chain-link fences, cracked roads and buckling earth from which caskets and human bones occasionally emerge - an embarrassment.

"It's very frustrating when you see a [weed] tree that's 6 feet tall or 8 feet tall, and you know that somebody is buried under there," said Sheridan B. Allmond, chairwoman of the Mount Auburn board of directors.

As Allmond led groups of students on short tours of the grounds, she praised their work. "Volunteers have done more for this cemetery than the people paid to cut [grass] here," she said.

With pride and passion, Allmond noted the features that casual passers-by would never notice. In a hidden corner, a tall grave marker was dressed like a woman, draped in a white blouse and blue skirt.

Relatives had left "libations" in the form of water, bananas and apples - food for the afterlife. It is a traditional African custom, she said, and "it's not something you'd normally see this far north."

Allmond pointed out "Baby-land," where hundreds of newborns and infants were buried for free or at reduced cost, a poignant testimony to the poverty and infant mortality that still racks U.S. cities. She told how in the 1920s, plots could be purchased for $5; maintenance was $1 a year.

Desegregation paved the way for Mount Auburn's decline, according to Allmond. "When African-Americans had a choice of where to be buried, they chose other places," she said. This year, only two new coffins were lowered into its ground.

Cemetery trustees are waiting for donations - from individuals or governments - that would provide enough for restoration and maintenance. Promises are made when politicians pass through the neighborhood come election time, and then fade away, Allmond said.

"It's good to help out others, even though they're dead," said Ernest Williams, 15, of Patterson Park, a participant in another Shriver Center effort, the Choice Program, which targets at-risk youngsters.

Munching on pizza delivered after a couple of hours of work, many UMBC students said they were frustrated they had not accomplished more. Weeds grow quickly, and Allmond had the photographs to prove it: from the looks of things, a full-scale cleanup in 1999 might never have happened.

Students asked Allmond for her telephone number. They would come back again, they said. They would bring more mowers.

Allmond has heard those promises before. She prays they are met.

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