Several weeks ago, a friend of mine told me about the old Laurel Cemetery in the city's Belair-Edison neighborhood that had once been the premier resting place for Baltimore's African-American community until disappearing when the site was redeveloped as a shopping center in the late 1950s.
It was traditional during the early years of the 19th century that African-Americans were buried in "colored burial grounds" owned by black churches.
In 1851, Thomas Burgan Jr., a prominent businessman, sold a parcel of land on Belle Air Avenue to several businessmen who developed the land into a cemetery for the interment of the "colored people of the city and county of Baltimore."
Incorporated as the Laurel Cemetery Co. in 1852, it became the first and largest nonsectarian cemetery in the city for use by African-Americans.
The federal government acquired part of the cemetery during the Civil War for use as a national cemetery, burying about 230 black veterans there.
Road projects in 1886 and 1911 required the removal of the remains of the soldiers, who were reinterred at Loudon Park Cemetery.
Black dignitaries gathered to hear Frederick Douglass speak in 1894, when a monument to Daniel Alexander Payne, senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, college administrator, author and pastor of Bethel AME Church, was unveiled.
"This is a day of no uncommon significance," Douglass said in his remarks, which were reported in The Baltimore Sun. "We are gathered here to pay tribute to the memory of a man whose labors in the cause of education have led us to victory. … He was a friend of the oppressed, and what we are today is in large measure due to his work on our behalf."
But time had taken its toll on Laurel, which by the mid-1930s had become a weed-choked, overgrown ruin. Nearby residents began using it as a dump and by 1940 were calling for its removal.
By 1951, The Sun reported that the cemetery, bounded by Belair Road, Cliftmont Avenue, Edison Highway and Elmly Avenue, had become a playground for neighborhood children and was an "eyesore" that "presents an almost unbroken facade of riotous verdure."
The cemetery company declared bankruptcy in 1952, which caught the attention of the McKamer Realty Corp. On its board were Lloyd G. McAllister and Clement R. Mercaldo, who "worked for the city in condemnation proceedings and in the real estate division of the city Law Department," wrote Jane B. Wilson in her book, "The Very Quiet Baltimoreans."
Cemeteries in Maryland can only be dissolved by state law, and in 1957, Dels. Marvin Mandel and Carl Bachrach introduced a bill in the state legislature stating that Laurel had become a health hazard.
The bill was passed and Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin signed it. McKamer purchased the 15-acre cemetery for $100.
The property was subsequently sold to Vornado Corp., which built a Two Guys department store on the site.
Remains, perhaps no more than 300, were removed and reinterred in a 3-acre cemetery — also called Laurel — in Johnsville, Carroll County. With the passage of time, that cemetery became a neglected, overgrown ruin.
In 2000, Boy Scouts and several Liberty High School students under the direction of George Murphy, an educator and environmentalist, began a restoration effort in Carroll County to rid the cemetery of its dense overgrowth, while at the same time righting the indignities visited on those buried there.
Alma Moore, a local genealogist, told The Sun in a 2000 interview that of the 5,000 once buried at Laurel in Baltimore, "thousands of remains were sealed beneath the parking lot and store that were eventually constructed on the site."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun