SEARCHING THE PAST On behalf of dead, an amateur sleuth pursues buried truth

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

Alma Moore spends most of her Saturdays in the Maryland Hall of Records, searching through the long lists of the dead.

She looks for death certificates with the names of her relatives, and the many, many others who were buried in the old Laurel Cemetery. Laurel was founded in 1852 as the city's first non-sectarian burial ground for blacks. The cemetery has long been gone, buried beneath the macadam and buildings of a shopping center across Belair Road from Clifton Park.

Alma Moore believes that most of the people whose names she's found remain buried under what is now the Channel-Farm Fresh-Ames shopping center. She's sampled four years, 1875 and 1876, 1885 and 1886, and found 4,000 people whose death certificates say they were buried in Laurel Cemetery.

Moore and Ralph Clayton, a colleague in Laurel research, believe as many as 7,000 persons may have been buried at the graveyard during the century it was on Belair Road.

In an article published in Agnes Callum's genealogical journal "Flowers of the Field," Moore and Clayton, an Enoch Pratt librarian, closely analyzed the land deal that led to the demise of the cemetery 30 years ago.

Laurel was already more than 100 years old when a band of city law officials and real estate operators formed a corporation to buy the cemetery for themselves in 1958.

With the help of legislation initiated by Marvin Mandel, then leader of the city delegation to Annapolis and later governor, the corporation acquired title to the cemetery. They bought the prime site on Belair Road for $100 in an audacious and complex land-acquisition coup.

They still owned the land in 1962 when the planning commission permitted Two Guys to build a store and parking lot on the site. The assessed value a year later was $229,660 for the land and $426,600 for improvements.

The speculators, meanwhile, had hired an undertaker to move the uprooted dead to a new Laurel Cemetery in Carroll County when they acquired the cemetery in 1958.

"But Ralph and I both went out there to look," Moore says. "If there were any graves there -- you know how graves sink in, it's not like that. To me they just set the stones there. I think there's nothing there."

The late Herbert O. Frisby, for years president of the Laurel Cemetery lot owners association, sued the developers, but lost.

"He knew where the new Laurel Cemetery was and he knew where the bodies were," Moore says. "It was two different places. That's what he said. It's my belief, and it was Mr. Frisby's belief that they were plowed under."

The NAACP later took up the plot holders' cause and went to court, but it lost, too.

Clement R. Mercaldo, an assistant city solicitor in 1958 and one of the architects of the land deal, says there probably are remains at the site.

"Not bodies," he says during a phone interview, "bones and things."

It was impossible to tell how many bodies were in there, Mercaldo says. Only "something like" 25 deeds to burial rights were on record, he says.

"About three or four hundred remains were put in boxes and removed," he says. "They were buried up in Carroll County."

HE DUG THE HOLES

The speculators bought 4 1/2 acres of Carroll County farmland for a new Laurel Cemetery from a man named Norman Collins. His son, also named Norman, helped with the relocation and he remembers it well.

"I know exactly how many bodies were moved," the son says. "I know from actually being there. I dug holes for 90 percent of those bodies."

Collins figures eight to 12 full bodies were moved from Belair Road to Carroll County. "The rest were all partial bodies," he says. "Most of those here got only two-foot by two-foot boxes. A couple of hundred of them."

"Two hundred?"

"That's what a couple of hundred is, ain't it?"

In a century-old cemetery, he says, you don't find anything but casket handles, or a skull and bones, or a set of teeth.

"They never went through the whole damn thing," Collins says. "After a week and a half they just started picking up stones."

The younger Norman Collins is 66 now and still digs graves. He lives near Sykesville at Gaither. He leads the way to the "new" burial ground on Hodges Road, a two-line blacktop that dead-ends at the Liberty Reservoir watershed.

The cemetery is set back off the road about 30 yards, battered and abandoned-looking, overgrown with briars, vines, brambles and about 30 years' growth of scraggly underbrush and scrubby trees.

Many tombstones at the new cemetery mark nothing at all but memories: the ground beneath them is empty, Collins says.

He agrees that remains may be still buried at the old graveyard site on Belair Road. "There or on the city dump," he says.

By 1958, the old Laurel Cemetery had been abused and neglected for decades. The lot owners were poor, unorganized, and second-class citizens in a segregated city. There was little perpetual care. The cemetery was unsightly, overgrown, vandalized and disheveled. Neighbors said it was unsafe and unhealthy. Kids played among the tombstones and crypts.

LAST BURIAL IN 1957

But people were still being buried there. The last, according to the Afro-American newspaper, was James R. Nichols on Oct. 31, 1957.

"Mr. Frisby told me that, even as they were taking the tombstones away, there was a funeral going on," Alma Moore says. "They didn't have anywhere else to bury the person.

"It was kind of sad," she says. "There they were digging up one part of it, and somebody's getting buried in the other part."

Laurel, once the premier burial ground for Baltimore's black community, had been established in 1852 on a bosky knoll. Tradition holds that servants from the Johns Hopkins estate "Clifton," across the road and up on the hill, had been buried there even earlier.

Interred at Laurel over the years were widely known and prominent black clergymen, lawyers, doctors, public figures and black soldiers who had served in the Civil War.

The Rev. Daniel A. Payne, a senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a frequent visitor to Abraham Lincoln's White House, was buried there in 1893. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, eulogized the bishop at the cemetery. The seventh bishop of the A.M.E church, Alexander Wayman, who had spoken at Bishop Payne's funeral, was himself buried at Laurel in 1895.

Dr. George W. Kennard, Dr. Reverdy Hall and Dr. William H. Weaver were buried in the cemetery. So were David Dixon and James Gary Dixon, early lawyers, and Cabell Calloway, also a lawyer and an ancestor of Cab Calloway, the nonpareil performer, and Walter Emerson, a city councilman, and the Rev. Robert T. Winn, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church for 34 years, and the Rev. Harvey Johnson, one of Alma Moore's forebears.

LESSER-KNOWNS, ALSO

And also buried in Laurel were the thousands of more obscure people whose names Moore has recorded: the Blackstones and Carters and the Dixons and Dorseys, the Fraziers and Gants, the Hickses and the Olivers.

Alma Moore's people were Johnsons and Burketts.

She's found the death certificate of her great-great-grandmother, Eliza Jane Bask, at the Hall of Records.

"She died in 1886, December 3rd, and she was 58 years old," Moore says.

And she was buried in Laurel Cemetery.

"Hattie Burkett was her sister," Moore says, displaying the copy of another death certificate. "My great-great-aunt. All their family was buried there. Eliza Jane Bask had a daughter she named Eliza Ann and Eliza Ann married a William Johnson.

"They had six kids and only two of them survived until adulthood. William Johnson was one and my grandfather Luther: William Franklin and Luther Daniel. They were the only two. All the other children she had were buried in that cemetery.

"She's buried there. All her children were buried there. My grandfather was buried there."

Moore would go shopping with her father at Two Guys.

"He would never pull up on that parking lot," she says. "He would let me out on the street and I would go in and get whatever he wanted."

"Of course I would ask why don't you go in the store with me. 'There are dead bodies buried under that parking lot'; he told me this the whole time I was growing up. He said 'They buried my father there. They moved the bodies and I don't know where the new cemetery is.' "

She started her research to find out for her father where his ancestors were buried.

"I thought I would do that and I would tell him where," she says. "So, while I was doing that I thought I might as well just start from the beginning, December 1874, and just look at all the names of people buried in Laurel Cemetery, knowing that I could never find all of them.

She records the day, month and year of burial, name, age listed in years, months and days, and sometimes where the person was born. She's already listed 1,500 names in a neat, handsome desktop computer publication.

Alma Moore doesn't think the Laurel Cemetery land deal could be repeated. "In this day and age," she says, "you can't do that. The laws protect the dead."

And her research has become a kind of memorial for the forlorn dead of Laurel Cemetery, wherever they may be.

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