In the 2.3 acres surrounding Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church, a subtle link to local history lies in a cemetery that dates back nearly 200 years.
At least 1,800 graves — few with headstones, many belonging to former slaves — are on the grounds, each bearing a story and a key to the past. For the past 15 months, a dedicated team from the church has worked to identify each person buried there and perhaps even discover their stories.
"It's important that we know who helped pave the way for us, because if this generation does not do it, I don't know what the next generation will do," said Elinor Thompson, who has led the effort. "Our concern is to really preserve the history and the heritage, and restore some of the tombstones and document the history."
Thompson, a genealogist, historian and author, first learned of the cemetery's past in August 2013 while working on a family history for some residents of the Skidmore neighborhood on the Broadneck Peninsula. She discovered they had an ancestor who was a former slave and was interred in Asbury Broadneck's cemetery.
As she looked into the site further, Thompson learned it contained hundreds of unmarked graves, and she began working with a group of volunteers to find out more about who is buried there. Since then, the group has identified the graves of 1,842 men, women and children, including hundreds of former slaves, Civil War veterans and others dating to the mid-19th century.
"This is what I've been doing since I was about 17 years old — retracing my own history," Thompson said. "This is all I do — this is my love, this is my business, this is my life."
Members of Asbury Broadneck Church knew of the cemetery, but a lack of a record-keeping before the early 20th century, and a fire that destroyed what little documentation did exist, meant the church knew little about how many people were buried there and who they were.
Identifying grave sites is meticulous work that can be part mystery, part research project. Thompson and a group of five or six volunteers make regular trips to the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, where they pore through years of documents: census records, birth and death certificates, newspaper articles, land records, manumission papers, draft cards, obituaries and court records.
The group went even further, conducting oral interviews and reaching out to members of the community for their links to the past. One vital tool in genealogical research is Bible records — accounts of births, marriages and deaths inscribed in the pages of the family Bible.
Last February, the cemetery program received a $1,200 Heritage Grant from Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Historical Trust. The grant program, which has been in existence since 1994, provides direct assistance to protect historical and cultural resources throughout the state. According to Margaret De Arcangelis, education and outreach director at Preservation Maryland, the work at Asbury Broadneck Church can serve as a model across Maryland.
"There are so many of [these sites] scattered throughout the state, especially little cemeteries that have either just a small group tending to them or no group at all. They're in farmers' fields, they're lost in woods, they're tucked behind churches, and so finding ways to document those cemeteries — educate people about those gravestones and the people who were buried there — is really important work," De Arcangelis said.
The church has also applied for grants from the Maryland Historical Trust and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture. If approved, the grants would enable the historians to expand their work and employ tactics such as ground penetrating radar.
The cemetery project has offered a unique perspective as the community enters an anniversary year at both the parochial and state levels. On Nov. 1, the state will mark the 150th anniversary of the state's emancipation of slaves.
On Oct. 19, beginning with a 10 a.m. service, Asbury Broadneck church will celebrate its 175th anniversary with a homecoming celebration, at which the community will pay homage to its ancestry with the unveiling of a specially designed quilt.
The 153-square quilt, ceated by church member Parthenia Colbert,includes photographs of members of the church's congregation, as well as of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
"[The quilt] is just wonderful. It's all the families that attend the church today and their forefathers, so it's old pictures and new pictures, black-and-white pictures and color photos of the current family," Thompson said.
To learn more about the Asbury Broadneck cemetery project or view Thompson's other research, go to sharingourhistories.weebly.com.