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Mobtown Beat

The Plot Sickens

Mount Auburn Cemetery Is Still In Shambles

Frank Klein
SACRED AND PROFANE: The historic Mount Auburn Cemetery is overgrown and crumbling.

By Jason Torres | Posted 5/30/2007

The list of distinguished Baltimoreans reads like the program for a black history museum exhibit: Joseph Gans, the first African-American professional light-heavyweight boxing champion; civil-rights activist Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson; William Ashbie Hawkins, the first African-American to run for the U.S. Senate in Maryland; John Henry Murphy Sr., the founder of Baltimore's Afro American newspaper; countless freed and escaped slaves and Civil War veterans.

It's not a museum exhibit, though, but a short list of thousands of historically significant African-Americans buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cherry Hill, the oldest African-American-owned and -operated cemetery in Baltimore and the first place in the city to allow black people to be buried. The 33-acre swath of land was designated a historic landmark by the National Register of Historic places in 2001, but these days the rumpled and run-down cemetery is as much known for its broken and toppled tombstones, debris, and stray animals as it is for its renowned deceased citizens.

"That place is supposed to be celebrating black heritage, and everybody knows it. It's really a shame the way it looks," observes Charles Ellis, a resident of West Baltimore who happened to be cruising by Mount Auburn Cemetery on his bicycle during a recent visit by a reporter. "It's embarrassing, really, when you think about all the important people buried there. It should be a memorial, y'know? Something special. This place looks abandoned."

According to the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, the cemetery was founded in 1868 by the Rev. James Peck of Sharp Street Church. It was originally known as "The City of the Dead for Colored People" before being renamed Mount Auburn Cemetery 26 years later. The land is still owned and operated by Sharp Street Church on Etting Street.

Over the years, several local organizations have attempted to clean up and maintain the land, but without much funding or significant support, they have made little more than a dent in clearing out the tall grasses, mangled weeds, muddy sinkholes, and accumulated trash.

"It's a lot to deal with, but we have people come around every now and again to help clean it up," says James Wilson, the lone groundskeeper at Mount Auburn. "I can't do it alone. We have volunteers come through every other Saturday from 8 to 12, but the more that can help the better."

Norma Burton, administrative assistant of Sharp Street Church, says it's just too much land to deal with on an every-other-weekend basis. "It just takes so much work," she says. "I remember in December, there were about 600 people there trying to clean it up, they worked all day and only got about 13 acres done. Then after that's done, it has to be upkept. It's just a lot of work."

Currently the church allows anyone with a lawnmower to visit the cemetery and help with minor landscaping.

"I'm personally appalled by the Sharp Street Church--it's unconscionable," says Carolyn Jacobi of Howard County, CEO of Eternal Justice Inc., a watchdog organization she founded in 1995 to fight injustices in the death-care industry. "It's disgusting and everyone knows it. I talk about Mount Auburn all over the country, and people know exactly where I'm talking about. It's an embarrassment."

Mount Auburn has been a hot issue for Jacobi. Her father was buried there in 1970, and she has tried numerous times to locate his grave site. But she says many of the records that indicate who is buried where are lost. Most are handwritten, decades old, and neglected. She says that some progress has been made at the cemetery over the years, but not very much.

"I was just there last fall," she says. "The grass was cut. I have to say, aside from that, there wasn't much changed since 1994." Jacobi says that when she visited the cemetery in '95 to look for her father's grave, she found a human skull at a grave site.

"I've seen worse than that over the years I've been there," she says. "Wild dogs running around with femur bones, a human foot just sitting out in plain sight. I had two families call me the other day and tell me that they really wanted to go and visit a loved one but they were afraid of falling into one of those ravines."

According to the Rev. Douglas Sands, president of the board of directors for Mount Auburn, the future was not taken much into consideration when the cemetery was founded. "At the time these burial plots were sold, perpetual care was not taken into consideration," he says. "And new plots haven't been sold here in years." He acknowledges that keeping on top of the problems at Mount Auburn is going to be a challenge, but he says that "it can be done. It's going to take a lot though."

Though there are some, such as Jacobi, who are outraged and appalled at the conditions at Mount Auburn, some historians point out that the Cherry Hill cemetery is not the only aging burial place to have fallen into a state of disarray.

"There are quite a lot of run-down cemeteries in Baltimore unfortunately, as is the case with many of the 19th-century cemeteries," says Francis O'Neill, senior reference librarian at the Maryland Historical Society. "What happens in a lot of cases is that they begin as an arm of the church, and trustees are appointed, but there's no income to keep it up. . . . A lot of the ones on Boston Street are like that-- run-down, overgrown, and inaccessible. Some places the foliage is so thick you can't enter the grounds. It's unfortunate, but it happens."

Jacobi, though, isn't willing to accept that as an answer, and she says she is surprised that the families of important Baltimoreans buried at Mount Auburn are not more involved in the welfare of their deceased.

"I just don't understand, when you think about all the people buried there," she says, pointing out, for example, the family of Afro founder John Henry Murphy Sr. "I mean the Murphys? How can they accept that? That's a group of people who get things done. It's just mind-boggling to me."

Representatives for the Murphy family did not return calls for comment in time for this story.

Jacobi, whose life's work is helping consumers navigate funeral homes and cemeteries, has all but washed her hands of the travesty at Mount Auburn.

"I think the city should just go ahead and adopt it," she says. "I proposed that in 1997, 1998, and 1999 in writing and never got a response."

"Mayor Dixon is concerned about the conditions at Mount Auburn cemetery," says Anthony McCarthy, communications director for Mayor Sheila Dixon. "There's a tremendous amount of history there, and she would like to explore options to assist Sharp Street in rehabilitating the area. It would be a great community initiative."

Jacobi says she's waiting to see city officials act on those kinds of promises.

"They should help to maintain it as an honorable site, she says. "Because there's too much history here to let it go like that."

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