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Black cemeteries neglected in area

February 17, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

It's in the heart of Halfway, but most people don't even know the cemetery is there.

Its old headstones are sunken, covered with weeds or cast aside in rubble piles to make way for the trappings of the living, whose backyards stretch into the domain of the dead.

Black soldiers and others are buried on the land bounded by Lincolnshire Road, Clinton Avenue, Rosewood Drive and Gay Street.

The chain-link fences area residents have erected over time to mark their properties now limit access to the historic black cemetery - one of dozens countywide that have been forgotten by all but a few who hope to preserve that piece of Washington County's heritage.

"That's an orphan sitting there," said local historian Don Brown, making his way across private property to reach the abandoned graveyard.

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The fraternal organization that had the cemetery deeded more than a century ago has long since ceased to exist. No descendants of the deceased have stepped forward to protect the property.

And no one seems to know exactly who is responsible for the deteriorating graveyard - the largest of 28 black cemeteries that Brown has identified from Crystal Falls to Hancock since tracking down Buffalo Soldier William O. Wilson's unmarked Hagerstown grave in 1997.

Churches and concerned individuals care for only a handful of the cemeteries, Brown said.

In Weverton, members of the Mt. Moriah Freewill Baptist Church maintain the adjacent graveyard. The Rev. Ralph Monroe and a mower hired by the Save Historic Antietam Foundation tend the historic cemetery at Tolson's Chapel in Sharpsburg. And people who live near black cemeteries in Clear Spring and Keedysville "keep an eye on them," Brown said.

For the most part, however, the county's black cemeteries have been neglected.

"There's nobody taking care of them. Not only that, there's nobody who wants to," Brown said.

Samaritans


Members of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church sought land for a new cemetery more than a century ago after the Hagerstown church's original graveyard was sealed to new burials, he said.

Ebenezer AME members formed a fraternal lodge called The Independent Order of Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria Cemetery to buy nearly seven acres in Halfway, where black burials had been taking place since 1844.

The cemetery was deeded in 1897.

Most of the original cemetery land was sold in 1946. Over time, the cemetery, in which nearly 400 blacks were buried, was reduced to about three-quarters of an acre boxed in by housing lots, Brown said.

At the cemetery, he pulled a tangle of vines from one of few standing headstones and brushed away years of dust to reveal the name: Irvin Sullivan. He was a World War I veteran who died in 1927.

Brown bypassed fallen tree limbs and a set of canoes to reach a heap of broken headstones. He pointed to other grave markers still standing in nearby yards, flanked by flower beds, garages and lawn furniture.

A large headstone engraved with the name Dorsey rests under a clump of ivy behind the Rosewood Drive home of Eugene and Joan McCauley. The elderly couple has never seen anyone visit the deteriorating grave sites, they said.

Neighborhood lore dates the last cemetery visitor to 1939, but resident Freda Frantz briefly spoke to a black couple looking for a relative's gravesite several years ago, she said.

"They knew the cemetery was there, and we let them go through our backyard to get to it," said Frantz, who lives on Lincolnshire Road.

Cemetery neighbors


Frantz and her husband, Eugene, keep their canoes on a portion of the cemetery they keep clear of fallen limbs and other debris.

"When we moved here (in 1981), people were actually using the cemetery as a garbage dump," Frantz said. "We just thought that was ridiculous."

The Frantzes and their neighbors had to pay for tree removal when several of the large pines bordering the cemetery blew down, destroying smaller trees and clotheslines, they said.

"You have no choice. You either have to move it or look at an eyesore," said Darlene Sword, of Rosewood Drive.

The Frantzes once attempted to get a quit claim deed - which is used to transfer ownership of real property from one owner to its buyer - to the portion of the cemetery they have been keeping clear of debris. They dropped the idea when they learned they would have to contact relatives of those buried in the cemetery.

"We had no idea how to go about doing that," Frantz said.

She lost an opportunity to discuss the matter with the descendants of the deceased when the couple who bypassed her yard en route to the cemetery left before she had a chance to talk with them, Frantz said.

'No remedy'


Maryland criminal laws make it a misdemeanor to trespass or destroy property on abandoned cemeteries, but there are no laws governing preservation or maintenance of these graveyards, said Baltimore attorney George Tyler, one of the few lawyers in Maryland who specializes in cemetery law.

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