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Charmed Life

Dead Calm

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 6/20/2001

I'm standing in a wild meadow that lies like a rumpled quilt on a ridge overlooking the Patapsco River valley. To the east I can see the harbor; just a block away, traffic speeds on Interstate 295; where I'm standing, the air is busy with birds and bugs. Dragonflies and swallows swoop, chest-high thistles waver, butterflies flit, a breeze sends waves across the grass.

An urban nature preserve? Not officially. Above the tall brush, stone monuments rear up at odd angles--slabs, pillars, a Celtic cross, an angel. Here and there around the meadow, squares of mowed grass reveal family burial plots cared for by relatives. Artificial flowers mingle with buttercups and clover.

This is Mount Auburn Cemetery, the last traditional African-American graveyard in Baltimore, located just south of Westport along Annapolis Road. Between its founding in 1872 and the present, the remains of some 79,000 Baltimoreans have been tucked into this hillside. For half of the last century, it was one of just two city cemeteries serving blacks.

Today it's an underrated historic treasure and, quite unintentionally, a wildlife refuge. As I tramp through the high grass, scanning gravestones, something brown explodes at my feet, and two henlike birds flap a few yards before melting into the thatch: bobwhites, which I've never seen before, anywhere. I find unfamiliar striped feathers fanned out on the lane to Annapolis Road; further along, a large brown rabbit lopes out of sight. Red-winged blackbirds scold me for trespassing.

I'm looking for a few famous names. One of the many former slaves buried here is John H. Murphy, who founded the Afro-American newspapers and the Murphy dynasty of publishers, lawyers, and activists. If he's the greatest hero buried in Mount Auburn, the greatest heroine here must be Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, the NAACP leader whose career of nonviolent civil-rights campaigns began in 1931, when Martin Luther King Jr. was 2 years old (Charmed Life, May 17, 2000, www.citypaper.com/2000-05-17/charmed.html).

"Ma" Jackson, like Murphy, lies somewhere in the thicket of "Saints' Rest"--the section behind Joe Gans, I'm told. Gans' grave is a hard-to-miss landmark, a somber stone block just four graves in from the main gate. Gans was boxing's world lightweight champion from 1901 to 1908, the first black man to hold that title.

I follow a number of paths cut into Saints' Rest but have no luck finding either Jackson or Murphy. I meet a few other visitors, who express dismay at the overgrown conditions. One white-haired lady in a broad straw hat has come with her son, who's using a gas-powered weed whacker to clear out the family site. She reminisces that hundreds of people used to come here every Memorial Day to tend their plots. Neighborhood men and boys would show up with sickles and lawn mowers, looking for work.

Mount Auburn was founded, and is still owned, by the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, one of Baltimore's oldest black congregations. In its heyday, Sharp Street was a hotbed of anti-slavery activism. Later in the 19th century, as development threatened the city's black churchyards, the Rev. James Peck of the Sharp Street church called for creation of a new rural cemetery. The church bought part of an estate called Mount Winans and declared it "The City of the Dead for Colored People," open to black folk regardless of faith or wealth.

Ironically, considering it is "Ma" Jackson's final stop, Mount Auburn suffered from the victory of civil rights. Like many other businesses and institutions that served blacks in the days of Jim Crow, the old burial ground lost patronage when African-Americans were suddenly free to go elsewhere. Today, Sharp Street Memorial, located at Dolphin and Etting streets in West Baltimore's Upton neighborhood, has an aging congregation and nowhere near the money needed to defeat the cemetery's encroaching weeds. Newspaper accounts since the 1970s have bemoaned the site's uneven ground and toppled stones, painting a picture of neglect and horrific decay.

That picture is not entirely fair--the church does what it can, sometimes with outside help. Last year, state Sen. Joan Carter Conway spearheaded a massive volunteer maintenance effort, involving some 500 people over four months. Teams arrived every Saturday with the goal of grooming the entire sprawling cemetery. Sheridan Allmond, chairperson of Mount Auburn's trustees, says three-quarters of the site got trimmed at some point last year. There are plans to repeat the campaign this summer. Meanwhile, the cemetery awaits placement on the National Registry of Historic Places; that status might help the trustees raise money.

Looking out over the slopes, I'm of two minds about Mount Auburn. I appreciate how families feel about the sanctity of grave sites; the folks who care most, I presume, take care of their own. And I wish it were easier to find the shrines of civil-rights heroes.

On the other hand, what harm is done by letting nature do some of the landscaping? I came to Mount Auburn expecting the wasteland described by journalists and found something more like my own eccentric vision of paradise. The flowers growing wild among the graves remind me of the poppies in Flanders' fields; the nodding heads of gone-to-seed grass recall a fitting Hebrew proverb: "The generations of men are like the generations of wheat." It's peaceful here--and not, dire reports notwithstanding, dangerous. One city Health Department veteran tells me there's nothing wrong with Mount Auburn, safety-wise, that isn't wrong with a thousand vacant city lots.

So I offer a radical suggestion for this historic graveyard: Mow fewer areas, but more often. Appease the folks who still mind their family plots, clean up the best-known sites, keep up appearances--but as for the thousands whose descendants never call, let them rest under their quilt of wildflowers, lulled by mourning doves, unrattled by machines.

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