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Harford's Gravel Hill community, long threatened by rubble landfill, celebrates its history with a reunion

More than a quarter century ago, St. James A.M.E. Church and its Civil War-era cemetery were in danger of being overwhelmed by a 68-acre rubble landfill planned in their backyard, off Gravel Hill Road north of Havre de Grace.

More than a quarter century ago, St. James A.M.E. Church and its Civil War-era cemetery were in danger of being overwhelmed by a 68-acre rubble landfill planned in their backyard, off Gravel Hill Road north of Havre de Grace.

This past weekend, Gravel Hill residents both past and present spent the weekend at the church, celebrating their historic community in a rare reunion put on by the neighborhood's leaders.

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After a fish fry Friday night and a daylong party Saturday, the reunion culminated in a Sunday morning service that filled St. James A.M.E. and featured Gravel Hill's longtime supporter, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman.

"We are still in that struggle. We're still fighting for what is right. We just approved an appropriation for another team of attorneys to fight the battle that we started back then," Glassman, who won a seat on the County Council in 1990 thanks in large part to his opposition to the rubblefill.

On Sunday, Glassman promised to continue standing by Gravel Hill, noting his administration recently hired outside counsel to defend the county's against a suit launched in 2013 by the would-be rubblefill's owner, Maryland Reclamation Associates.

The county and Maryland Reclamation have been involved in litigation over the rubblefill for nearly 25 years. The latest chapter of the legal battle is in Harford County Circuit Court, where Maryland Reclamation is seeking $100 million from the county in compensation for the alleged loss of its property's value because of the county's refusal to approve the project.

"I love the old passage [where], if you have 100 sheep, if you lose one, that one is as important to the shepherd as those 99, and I'll never lose Gravel Hill. It will always be in my flock," Glassman told the worshippers at St. James A.M.E. as murmurs of "All right now," "Praise the Lord" and "Hallelujah" were sent back in his direction.

Glassman has often called former St. James pastor, the Rev. Violet Hopkins Tann, his "spiritual mother" and noted he invited her to be the first black pastor to speak at a Harford County inauguration when he became county executive in December 2014.

"She's one of those voices that comes to me – what is right, what is just, to do the right thing," Glassman said. "She knows I love her, I love this church and will always protect it and do what I can."

Tim Munson, who renovated St. James A.M.E. Church's fellowship hall, greets community matriarch Dorothy Bishop-Hall during the Gravel Hill community reunion weekend.
Tim Munson, who renovated St. James A.M.E. Church's fellowship hall, greets community matriarch Dorothy Bishop-Hall during the Gravel Hill community reunion weekend. (BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Reggie Bishop, the community's historian, used the church service to remind worshippers of Gravel Hill's establishment well before the Civil War and its recognition by officials at the time as a "discrete Negro community."

"There are many land records that show 'Gravel Hills' in their records but there's one with a Negro [named] White. He was a blacksmith in the area near the Thompson farm – name sound familiar? – [and] he was the first African-American that I saw in the record so far in the late 1790s," Bishop told the congregation.

For those who came to St. James on Sunday, and on Saturday despite the rain, the weekend was a testament to the community's spirit and commitment to its history. Gravel Hill is the birthplace of Sgt. Alfred Hilton, who served in the Union Army and is Harford County's only native born Medal of Honor recipient from the Civil War.

"It means so much to me, because I was born on Gravel Hill and I'm one of the last 11 descendants of the original people," Dorothy Bishop-Hall, chairwoman of the weekend event, said about why she was willing to help get the event together.

"This was a neighborhood of all people. It was never separated. The only thing that separated us was the school bus, which, when we got off, we were all just the same people," she said.

She added with a smile that every one of the original families sent a representative, and she is confident the rubblefill will never come to pass.

"I think Gravel Hill will always be here, because we believe that God is not going to allow [the rubblefill], because our loved ones are buried here," she said. "We just keep on believing. We keep staying here and doing what we do."

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The weekend turnout "was more than what we expected, especially Friday with the fish fry," a smiling Reggie Bishop said after the service.

"It was like people couldn't wait to get here," he said, noting the rain did not affect the gathering too much. "We just piled in like sardines and were cutting up [in the church]."

The unprecedented fight against the rubblefill has left the community wary, Bishop said.

"It keeps us cautious. I mean, because we were fighting it so long, it's like we are looking over our shoulder every minute," he said. "If we had the money, we would buy it."

St. James' special "reunion choir" seemed to have Gravel Hill's history in mind when it started off the church service with the song, "We've Come This Far By Faith."

The cemetery behind St. James A.M.E. Church, which has many Civil War-era graves, was designated a historical landmark in 1994.
The cemetery behind St. James A.M.E. Church, which has many Civil War-era graves, was designated a historical landmark in 1994. (BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Cynthia Harvin reminded the worshippers that doing God's work will mean dealing with opponents.

"There will always be those who don't understand or don't like what you are doing," Harvin said in her sermon. "God will raise up people who are trying to stop you."

Other guests who came for the service included Tim Munson, of AES Builder & Home Improvements, who helped renovate the church's fellowship hall, and County Councilman Curtis Beulah, who came with his wife.

Attendees like Pattie Ford said as they were leaving that they were very glad to be part of Gravel Hill and the reunion weekend.

"I am very proud that we were able to do what we did to stop the rubblefill," Ford said.

Herman Hague, a Gravel Hill native who has lived in Atlanta, Ga., for 23 years, said: "When you think about how we came through all that, we know God is on our side, and for Barry [Glassman] to get up and talk... that just speaks power to the relationships we built."

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