While an Annapolis historian searches for the names of African-Americans buried anonymously at the Crownsville Hospital Center cemetery, she has found a state delegate who wants to help her preserve the historic site.
Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg introduced legislation yesterday that would require - if the psychiatric hospital is closed as expected - that the state maintain the cemetery and mark it with a monument.
It also would ban the state from selling the cemetery and land that allows access to it.
"We should make sure that these people have peace in death," said Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. "They may not have had it in life."
The cemetery sits on a hilly, wooded parcel next to Interstate 97, north of Annapolis. From the time Crownsville opened in 1911 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane until about 1953, many of its patients were interred beneath flat, numbered concrete blocks.
"There was no dignity in life and now to have no dignity in death is just horrible," said Annapolis historian Janice Hayes-Williams, who recently had expressed concern over who would maintain the site if the hospital closes.
A few months ago, she started trying to identify the approximately 1,400 nameless bodies interred at the Crownsville cemetery. Along with a cast of volunteers, she has been digging through death records at the state archives in Annapolis. By May, she expects to identify every person buried there.
Hayes-Williams is rushing because the hospital is slated for closure as early as July 1. State health officials have said that unless the General Assembly blocks their plans, they will close the facility and transfer its 200 patients to other facilities.
It is unclear what will happen to the 630-acre facility and adjoining 550-acre, state-owned parcel. Some in the area fear the state could sell it for development.
Rosenberg, who had heard about the cemetery a few years ago, said his interest in Hayes-Williams' project was rekindled by an article about it in The Sun last month.
Rosenberg's bill also would apply to any other Mental Hygiene Administration facilities with cemeteries, if they are closed. State health officials have said Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville and Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville have gravesites with a mix of anonymous and labeled graves.
Rosenberg said the state archivist is researching whether other state facilities have anonymous gravesites. If so, he may amend the bill to add them.
In 1953, Crownsville began attaching names to some headstones. Because many graves have been covered by dirt, grass and leaves, the number of people buried in the graveyard is unknown.
If the bill passes, Hayes-Williams said the patients won't remain forgotten.
"It's wonderful," she said of the legislation. "[The cemetery] has to be protected because developers do all kinds of things."