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Rediscovering the African-American graveyard beneath a Baltimore shopping center

Ron Castanzo pulled up to the parking lot of the strip mall in the Belair-Edison neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore in his minivan a while back.

On a grassy spot near the entrance of the Belair Edison Crossing shopping center on Belair Road, he saw the top of a white tombstone breaking through the ground, like a tooth coming in.

Castanzo, a professor at the University of Baltimore who teaches courses in anthropology and human biology, remembers thinking: “Wow, there was a cemetery here.”

It was the beginning of an effort to dig up a past long paved over. Laurel Cemetery opened in 1852 as the first non-religious cemetery for Baltimore’s African-American community. About 20 percent the size of Green Mount Cemetery, it became the final resting place for Union soldiers, African Methodist Episcopal bishops, civil rights leaders, businessmen and professionals from the city’s black middle class.

“If you were somebody of note, the likelihood is that Laurel Cemetery is where you were buried,” said Elgin Klugh, who chairs the department of applied social and political sciences at Coppin State University.

The cemetery — or some of it, at least — was moved in the 1950s. Now Castanzo and Klugh have joined forces to excavate its lost history. They have recruited a team of students for a simple mission: Determine whether there are bodies still buried beneath the shopping center. Klugh wants to create a comprehensive list of people who were buried there.

Their work could be bolstered by legislation before the General Assembly to increase protections for local cemeteries that have been abandoned, bulldozed or just neglected. The House approved the legislation 138-0 Monday night. The Senate version is scheduled for a hearing Thursday.

State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said the legislation could be used to increase the visibility of sites such as Laurel Cemetery. The Baltimore Democrat said the bill isn’t just about African-American cemeteries but all graveyards.

“Quite a lot of them are not being maintained,” she said.

Conway said she is considering offering an amendment to her bill prohibiting the paving over of cemeteries.

“I don’t think they should be able to pave over cemeteries and put a house there,” she said. “That’s another episode of ‘Poltergeist.’ ”

Perhaps for as long as the dead have been buried, societies have struggled to maintain graveyards. Across Belair Road from the Laurel Cemetery site, in the middle of Clifton Park, is the old site of St. Vincent’s Cemetery, which opened around the same time. It was bulldozed in the 1980s. A group that calls itself the Friends of St. Vincent’s Cemetery is working to landscape the area.

Neglect is particularly common at African-American cemeteries, said Eileen McGuckian, president of the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites.

A Baptist church in Bethesda has clashed with Montgomery County and private developers over what is believed to be a historic African-American cemetery that was paved over years ago. Human remains from an African-American cemetery have been found beneath a dog park in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.

In New York in 1991, workers excavating a site in Lower Manhattan for a federal building uncovered the first of an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 graves, a forgotten 18th century African-American cemetery. A portion of the site is now protected as the African Burial Ground National Monument.

“Sometimes there are real horror stories,” McGuckian said.

Castanzo learned of the Laurel Cemetery from a historic map of the city. After checking out the site in person, he contacted Coastal Equities, which purchased the shopping center just a few years ago, and got permission to dig in the grassy, unpaved section.

Coastal Equities did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

The team began work in summer 2015.

“I really did not expect there to be lots of intact burials,” Castanzo said.

The air was still shimmering with tension after the death of Freddie Gray and the demonstrations that followed. Ashley Smith, then a student at Coppin State University, worked on the dig. As team members excavated, she said, the blackish soil nearest to the asphalt gave way to a reddish dirt thick enough to mold with your hands.

In time, they found two headstones, without names. Shards of plate, a jug — antique trash, probably dumped in the 1940s. Piles and piles of brick. There were bones and the metal handles of caskets. Nails of coffins. A grave, cradled in a basket of roots.

And there, in the cemetery beneath the parking lot, Smith confronted a new type of racism: the racism that followed black people even after their deaths.

“Finding out that a space that was so important to our community was just kind of discarded,” said Smith, sent a message to the city’s African Americans: “We’re not human, we’re not worthy of being remembered.”

She’d been to the strip mall. She went to high school nearby. Yet in all those years, she never once heard anyone talk about the cemetery.

“So much history was buried in that space,” she said.

To Klugh, that’s the worst thing about this story. Of the possibly 5,000 people buried at Laurel, he said, “their lives and contributions are gone from the collective memory.”

Their earthly rest was not undisturbed.

Cattle sometimes broke through the fence and knocked over tombstones, The Baltimore Afro-American reported. Weeds and weather overtook the headstones. Neighbors dumped trash and ashes.

“The city of the dead is also the city of disorder and neglect,” The Afro reported in 1929.

The company that owned the cemetery said members had stopped paying annual dues, and eventually declared bankruptcy, the newspaper reported. Neighbors complained that the place was an eyesore, a nuisance, a draw for criminals.

In 1957, the General Assembly approved legislation approving its destruction after legislators argued that it had become a health hazard. The prime land was later bought and sold by men who worked for the city’s Law Department.

“And that’s a really sad chapter in Baltimore history,” Castanzo said.

By November 1958, an Afro reporter wrote, “the soft sobs of bereaved relatives have been replaced at the Laurel Cemetery by the roar of powerful bulldozers ripping apart this historic but decaying burial grounds.”

A new owner moved a few hundred burials to Carroll County. But only a small fraction of the bodies were likely relocated.

“You never remove them all,” McGuckian said.

Castanzo and Klugh visited the site one afternoon last week. Their presence drew curiosity. Some passersby had heard that the site had been a cemetery, but knew little about who was buried there.

“They need to do something about this,” said Angela Thomas. “Somebody’s loved one’s probably still in there.”

The ground has eroded substantially since Castanzo and Klugh began their work. In time, Castanzo said, human remains would come to the surface.

He picked up a bone, unsure whether it was from a person.

Klugh noticed something else in the dirt: the handle of an old casket.

Castanzo bent to pick it up. Tyrone Huff, 49, watched with a mix of fascination and anger.

Why hadn’t the site been protected?

For years, he and many others have used the grassy knoll as a shortcut to enter the strip mall. But now, knowing this was sacred ground, he swore he would never do it again.

“They’re not resting in peace,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Erin Cox contributed to this article.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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