Shining light on hidden history

Decorations draw attention to a black cemetery in Annapolis



Since the days of slavery and smallpox, Brewer Hill Cemetery, tucked on a 4 1/2 -acre plot near Westgate Circle in Annapolis, has been a largely overlooked presence in the state capital.

Even with decade-old improvements, the African-American cemetery's tilted grave markers and uneven rows contrast with the Annapolis National Cemetery next door, full of Civil War Union soldiers whose white stones are neatly marked and maintained, with a plaque of the Gettysburg Address posted as a reminder of the cause for which they fell.

This holiday season, though, those who walk or drive along West Street at night will notice a change at the burial ground.

Thanks to the efforts of supporters, the humble and historic black cemetery shines with decorative white lights for the first time - illuminating a symmetrical row of maple trees, the brick wall and entrance along West Street and, most important, its name for all to notice.

Lighting up the cemetery to make it visible to the public was a long-held dream of George Phelps Jr., a 79-year-old expert on African-American history in Anne Arundel County.

The theme of a recent lighting event, "Keeping our future bright by honoring our past," was intended as a spur for blacks to continue making strides, he said, by glimpsing what other generations have overcome.

"Now we are lighting it up to recognize and reflect on a proud past and a bright future," Phelps said.

Brewer Hill Cemetery officially began in 1884 when a group of black city residents bought the tract for $787.50. Michael P. Parker, a local history author, said the land was earlier used as a "poor lot" and to bury family slaves in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

But Brewer Hill fell on hard times and was fast becoming "an old colored abandoned cemetery," Phelps noted, when he mobilized a community effort in the early 1990s to save and restore it. His group raised $90,000 for that project through church donations, grants and the like. More recently, Phelps has helped research, preserve and upgrade a cemetery at the former Crownsville psychiatric hospital where many black patients were buried in numbered graves.

The thousands laid to rest at Brewer Hill over the years include John Snowden, a man who was hanged in 1919 after being convicted on scanty evidence of a pregnant woman's death. In 2001, Snowden was posthumously pardoned by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The condemned man's niece, Hazel G. Snowden, 48, of Landover, attended a ceremonial lighting of the cemetery Saturday night to, she said, serve as a witness to her uncle's spirit. She pointed to her uncle's last statement, engraved on a plaque: "I could not leave this world with a lie in my mouth."

"The moment I looked into the eyes of his photograph," she said, "I knew, even as a child, he was innocent."

Viola Huddleston, 77, a retired Naval Academy worker, walked over from her nearby home to honor her late parents and grandparents, who are buried at Brewer Hill - which was the site of the Brewer family estate in the 19th century. "There was nowhere to go but here," she said of her relatives.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens also participated in passing and lighting candles among a gathering of several dozen as dusk fell. In a brief greeting, she told attendees that as a girl growing up here, "For too long, I didn't know about this cemetery and what it meant."

The goal, Phelps said half in jest, was to "bring the cemetery alive." He added, more seriously, "Sometimes graves can speak."

Terence Wright, 47, a District of Columbia government employee whose family has eight lots in the cemetery, helped Phelps organize the lighting event and attended with his mother and aunt. "You see, all these years, tree stumps and grades of earth were used to show where family lots were," he said.

The graves are a mute testament to sorrows and scars from the state capital's past century. Henry Davis, lynched in jail in 1906 after being accused of assaulting a white woman, lies there. And it goes without saying that the dead suffered the brunt of segregation.

"Before integration, colored people couldn't go to restaurants, theaters," Phelps said. "You couldn't even be buried together."

His uncle, Wiley H. Bates - a merchant, Annapolis alderman and philanthropist with a big corner house in the black community in the 1920s and 1930s - is also buried there. But truth be told, Phelps confides, he does not have fond memories of his upstanding uncle, a disciplinarian who made him drink castor oil when he misbehaved as a boy.

"He'd sit on the front porch, immaculately dressed. We [children] hated him making us drink castor oil with a wooden spoon," Phelps says lightly. "I'll remember that as long as I live."

After a few songs and a prayer, a burst of tiny white lights switched on to make the cemetery sparkle. The festive lighting might become an annual holiday event, organizers said. The cemetery will be illuminated at night until Jan. 1.

As the gathering dispersed, Wright remained inside the gates. "I think I'll stay to reflect," he said.

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