Restoring a memorial a town nearly forgot

Dedication: Plowed over to make way for a `whites only' playground, the historic black cemetery returns to Frederick.

January 16, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - More than 50 years ago, this city unceremoniously razed a piece of its history, plowing under the markers in its first African-American cemetery to make room for the swing sets and seesaws of a playground for white children.

Yesterday, on what would have been the 74th birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., local dignitaries gathered to finally make things right.

They rededicated that land, now a vacant city block not far from City Hall, as the Laboring Sons Memorial Ground - a name meant to commemorate those who were interred there from 1851 until 1948. Many, perhaps most, of the graves remain.

"We pray that the named few and unnamed many might now rest from their labors," the Rev. Burton L. Mack of Asbury United Methodist Church said in his invocation.

The trip back to sacred ground has been a long one. The Beneficial Society of the Laboring Sons of Frederick was established in 1837 to provide a proper burial for free blacks - the city's tanners, carpenters, blacksmiths and more. In 1851, the cemetery was established on what is now Chapel Alley between Fifth and Sixth streets.

By the late 1940s, the cemetery was in poor shape and the elders of the society could no longer afford to take care of it. So they entered into a deal with the city. According to research done by city officials and local historians, the land would go to the city, which agreed to erect a plaque memorializing those buried there - as many as 1,500 in all.

The history gets fuzzy at this point, but this much is known: In 1950, the city authorized the purchase of playground equipment, which was installed over the cemetery. A basketball court was added later. And, for many years, it was a park for "whites only," several old-timers recalled.

"It should never have happened," said Garland A. Makel Jr., 76, who believes several of "my grandfather's people" are buried on Chapel Alley.

For nearly 50 years, that's how it was. Chapel Park was a playground.

"That, obviously, was inappropriate," said Barbara Wyatt, the city's historic preservation planner.

Some in the African-American community say they had assumed all of the graves had been moved somewhere else. Not so, says William O. Lee Jr., a former city alderman, retired middle school principal and a self-proclaimed historian of local black history.

The only records he could find were of one family who moved their mother to Fairview, another black cemetery. He says the rest remain where they have always been - under the park. While there could be 1,500 of them, only 116 names are known.

The cemetery's return to the collective consciousness of Frederick was a fluke. City resident Martha Reynolds remembered that the park by her house was once named Laboring Sons. In 1999, when the city was looking for names for its alleys, she suggested Laboring Sons Alley, a tribute to the lost heritage.

A reporter for a local weekly newspaper investigated the name, discovered the story of the lost cemetery, and an uproar ensued. In 2000, after the cemetery's existence was confirmed, the city had the playground equipment removed.

That set the stage, however slowly, for yesterday's ceremony and the installation of the plaque the city promised all those decades ago. On a simple black background with raised gold letters, it lists 116 people from Miranda Allen to John Woodward, with the inscription "and those who remain unnamed."

"This was not ever meant to be a ball field or a basketball court," said Jennifer P. Dougherty, Frederick's mayor. "This was meant to be a place of quiet reflection, honor and respect.

"The important part is it's being fixed. It's a step in the right direction. It goes to healing wounds, and that's what our effort is about today."

The dedication took place in a city not known for a strong history of racial tolerance, a city that only in recent years has become a more diversified place as it develops into a bedroom community of Washington. Two years ago, the city's police chief was suspended after having members of his force investigate the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"All the black people in the community were aware there had been a cemetery," Lee said. "Nobody ever said anything because of the times and the people of the times."

Once work is completed this year, paid for mostly with $80,000 from the city, the Laboring Sons Memorial Ground will be a series of crushed gravel walkways passing by benches and trees.

"Now that it's all over with," said longtime Frederick resident Mary Timpson, "there's peace in this ground."

There will be no plaque that explains the park's recent history, no mention of the toppling of grave markers or installation of the playground. After a debate, members of the committee that designed the park decided to focus on the future.

"It was very disrespectful to put playground equipment on top of people's graves. You just don't do that," said Mary Jacqueline Berry, whose great-great-grandfather John Turner and great-great-uncle Zachariah Daley are buried there.

But, she added, "We need to think about what's happening now, and not so much about what happened in the past because you can't change it now."

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