Baltimore County forensic artist helps give a face to African slave history

Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky has stared at many relics unearthed from Maryland's landscape.

Rarely, she says, has one stared back.

But that happened Friday at a sprawling farm in rural Charles County that holds the graves of 23 people who are believed to have been slaves who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The likeness of one man was digitally re-created by a Baltimore County forensic artist.

"I cried, because I'm not used to them looking back at me," said Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the State Highway Administration, the lead agency in a project to research the graves.

Baltimore County Police Detective Evelyn Grant, a forensic artist who ordinarily sketches criminals and makes clay busts of victims, created the facial image of the man, believed to have been in his mid-20s, whose remains were unearthed from a centuries-old burial ground next to a hay barn.

"Normally I do this with victims that can't be identified," said Grant, a 12-year veteran. "This one just has a different purpose. It's historical, not criminal."

From examining a skull, a waistcoat and other items, Grant crafted a facial image and full-body sketch of the man, likely a farm or house worker who has come to be known as "Lazarus."

Being able to see the man "was a very moving and powerful experience," Schablitsky said. "I'm used to seeing people of the past [through] the trash that they scattered, the things they lose, the skeleton bones they leave behind."

Veronica Coates, co-founder of the of the African American Heritage Society of Charles County, said it was difficult to look the man in the eye: "It was a connection with the soul.

"It was almost an apology of being so long in finding him," Coates said. "I think of how many more there are in that state."

Grant's drawings were displayed at Serenity Farm as SHA officials teamed with the heritage society, farm owners and other officials Friday to rededicate 13 of the 23 graves unearthed for examination.

The burial ground, which is believed to have been created between 1780 and 1810, became the backdrop of an impromptu liturgical ceremony led by farm co-owner Franklin Robinson Jr., complete with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer and the singing of "Amazing Grace."

Grant, one of only about three dozen certified forensic artists in the world, became involved with the Serenity Farm project at the request of a friend who was working there as a forensic anthropologist. In Baltimore County, Grant works primarily in internal affairs, but she's been called on to help with forensic cases throughout Maryland.

She embraced the project as a unique opportunity.

"We're trying to get their story out there, and telling the story of what people did back then versus now," Grant said. "I couldn't believe that I was part of it.

"I'm usually the end result; forensic artists come in at the very end, after the DNA has been extracted and the fingerprints have been taken and the crime scene has been worked on. So when they called me and told me about what they had discovered, I was thrilled that I would be at the very beginning of the investigation, helping out from point one."

Working on a centuries-old skull wasn't different from what she does for today's forensics, Grant said. It's all about analyzing "markers" — points that represent muscle, tissue, tendons and skin, "from the very basic part of the bone to the top surface of what your hand can touch."

Her primary concern was whether the skull would crumble once exhumed.

To help keep it intact, archaeologists removed a block of earth that encapsulated the skull.

But once she was in the lab, she said, "as I was taking measurements, the dirt was falling apart and the skull was physically crumbling."

Local African-Americans say the findings of the dig and the work of Grant are helping to preserve a rich legacy.

The facial images of Lazarus seemed to resonate most among those at Friday's dedication. As visitors viewed the images Grant had created, some called the man "handsome."

Robinson had invited state officials to excavate an area of the farm that was cleared after it was damaged by the 2012 derecho.

SHA officials say the remains were a surprise. Archaeologists had been excavating along Route 231 in Charles County because it was where the British landed and camped before converging on Washington during the War of 1812.

Anthropologists have been able to determine the work habits, diseases and even vitamin deficiencies of those buried at the site. Within the year, officials say, isotope analysis will reveal details about the food they ate and whether they were from the Chesapeake or came from somewhere else — such as the South, or Africa. DNA results might confirm ancestry, and indicate whether any are related to each other.

Some of the remains were found in clothing or wrapped in shrouds fastened with copper straight pins. Each person, including the infants, was buried in a pine coffin, but most of the bodies were decomposed.

Robinson said the skull of the man Grant sketched was discovered during a water line dig. It was Robinson who gave him the nickname Lazarus, an allusion to the New Testament figure Jesus raised from the dead.

For SHA archaeological purposes, he was the man buried in funeral plot No. 13.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad