Janice Hayes-Williams cried as she discovered the set of skeletons in a Calvert County museum. She cried again five months later as they were laid to rest.
Before their burial Friday, she took them out of the museum boxes where she believes they sat for 30 years and placed them in custom-built coffins.
“My heart is full,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
As she watched from the balcony of Asbury United Methodist Church, the bones were placed in another set of hands. A 12-man “posse” of African American community members stood with the coffins during a restoration ceremony and later guided them to their final resting place in St. Anne’s Cemetery.
Almost 40 years ago, the bones of a man in his 50s and a child were dug up from their resting place behind Asbury United Methodist Church to build townhouses on City Gate Lane.
Hayes-Williams suspects the skeleton of the man belongs to Smith Price, a man freed from slavery who founded the first African American church in Anne Arundel County in 1803, and his son. That church is now Asbury United Methodist Church.
The day she discovered the skeletons in storage at the Jefferson Patterson Park Museum, 50 miles from Annapolis, Hayes-Williams was mourning the loss of her friend, Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch.
“He was the reason I was there,” Hayes-Williams said.
Hayes-Williams has more mourning to do. Her aunt, who was also raised at Asbury United Methodist Church, died last week.
Since she discovered the bones in April, they have been repatriated to Annapolis, brought to life in a sketch through facial reconstruction, sent to a lab for DNA testing and finally laid to rest on Friday.
County Executive Steuart Pittman, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford spoke at the ceremony, all with the message that these bones that were forgotten for so long are an unforgettable part of Maryland history.
“During the time he lived, my ancestors lived in this area as well. My ancestors owned and enslaved people like Smith Price and his friends," Pittman said. "And that will be with me and all of us forever. That will never go away.”
Even if the man is not Smith Price, Pittman said, he and the child were still unearthed by a machine “removing an African American community and replacing it with ‘progress,’ supposedly.”
Hayes-Williams said scientists are still analyzing DNA samples from the bones at a lab in Florida. In a few weeks, they should be able to say if it is possible to match the samples from the man to living descendants. The bones of the child, who scientists believe died around 6 years old, couldn’t be matched to living descendants. Scientists should soon know the child’s sex and if the child is related to the man.
Buckley called Smith Price a founding father.
“His contribution to our city and the state are every bit as important to complete the telling of our story as the names of Lord Calvert, Baron Baltimore and George Washington," Buckley said. "What he left behind is an institution. This church stands as a beacon of help and hope and harmony and being strong for more than 200 years. That is his legacy.”
Rutherford called the ceremony an apt Maryland Emancipation Day celebration, marking 155 years since the lawmakers changed the state constitution to free all enslaved men, women and children within its boundaries.
“Price’s invaluable contributions to the African American community in Annapolis, to the community of Annapolis and the state of Maryland make it more than fitting that he should be returned today,” Rutherford said.
Before the caskets were carried off to be buried in the Price family plot, the Rev. Carletta Allen addressed all the elected officials in the room.
“You will remember Smith Price. You will remember his son. You will remember that people do what they will do unless someone stops them."
Like Hayes-Williams, Robert Worden has been following the bones from the beginning. He said he tried to tell urban renewal developers in the 1970s that there was a cemetery behind Asbury United, but they didn’t listen. He included updates on the excavation and the bones in a 1983 Murray Hill neighborhood newsletter.
Being at their reburial was gratifying, he said.
“For many years there was silence. It’s been a long journey," Worden said. "This shows historians can play a role in the community, bringing the past into the present and maybe teaching some life lessons to us all.”
Hayes-Williams said that beyond the bones, she sees a stronger community.
“Look at the faces who came out here today: old, young, black, white, all because they wanted to be a part of this. The posse, the old country boy, they wanted to be a part of it,” she said.