A cemetery of the forgotten receives respect at long last

Hospital graveyard to be preserved as historic site

September 11, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

For almost a century, they were the forgotten ones: nearly 2,000 African-American men, women and children buried in the cemetery of Crownsville Hospital Center, their lives marked only by the anonymous stones that dot the grassy, secluded graveyard.

Yesterday - beneath a cloudless blue sky - a crowd of more than 100 state officials, community leaders, mental health-care workers and historians gathered on the grounds of the former psychiatric hospital to dedicate the cemetery as a historic site.

More important to those who pushed for the designation, they gathered to promise that the patients buried there will, in fact, always be remembered.

"This is a very important and significant day because we're setting aside a portion of these grounds to treat these people in a respectful and dignified way," said state Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini. "We should treat people that way when they are alive, and after they have left."

Two months ago, Sabatini oversaw the closure of Crownsville Hospital Center - one of the state's three psychiatric facilities - leaving many to wonder what would become of its cemetery.

Friday's ceremony was a vindication for local historians who had worked to preserve the burial area, a vestige of a less enlightened time.

"In documenting the lives of these people, we ensure that we never forget them," said historian Janice Hayes-Williams of Annapolis. "I'm very proud this day has finally come."

Hayes-Williams and her uncle, George Phelps Jr., have spent the past three years scouring the state archives for death certificates, which they have used to identify the names of most of those interred in the cemetery. She called the task an emotional undertaking, reminding attendees, "There are babies buried here, too."

Crownsville was founded in 1910 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane. Until it was integrated in 1962, the bodies of many of those who died at the facility were sent to University Hospital in Baltimore for experimentation, or buried in unidentified graves marked by flat, gray stones etched with nothing but numbers.

The anonymity of the graves - most of them now timeworn and obscured by tall grass - caused many to worry that with the closure of the 200-bed Crownsville facility, developers would build on top of the hillside cemetery, just off Interstate 97 in Anne Arundel County.

When the General Assembly voted to close the hospital earlier this year as part of a plan to consolidate the state's mental health facilities, several lawmakers moved quickly to push for the cemetery's preservation.

One of them was Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who yesterday invoked the words of Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of a memorial at the battlefield of Gettysburg:

"The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here," Rosenberg said, quoting the former president.

Also in attendance were many employees of the former hospital, several of them moved to tears by the dedication speeches and presentation of "Amazing Grace" by a female vocalist.

"It's a very emotional day for me," said Lelia Davage, who worked at Crownsville from 1967 until its closure. "When I go there and see the cement markers with only numbers, I think maybe my ancestors are buried there."

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer honored Davage - who served as president of the Crownsville Hospital Auxiliary - with a plaque for her dedication to the facility.

To close the ceremony, Crownsville's former chaplain, Dennis DuPont, led a prayer dedicated to the patients buried in the cemetery, their families and those living with mental illness.

Former staffers displayed old black-and-white photographs - some of them from the 1950s, when Crownsville reached its peak patient population of 2,719. The photos will be put on display with other Crownsville memorabilia at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore.

After the hourlong ceremony, attendees were taken by bus to the cemetery site, about a mile from the main hospital building on a grassy slope shaded by a grove of trees.

After disembarking, the visitors dispersed quickly. Some chose a solitary walk, stopping only to peer at the numbers etched on the small stones. Others stood underneath the trees or on the hillside, gazing out at the graveyard and the tall trees swaying in a morning breeze.

Sometime in the next few weeks, a memorial stone will be placed in the cemetery, topped with a black and gold plaque that reads: "Dedicated to the memory of the Beloved Residents Laid to Rest."

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