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Reclaiming The Hallowed Ground Of The Laboring Sons - Last Rites
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November 9, 2011
Cemeteries are supposed to be inviolate places. They are set aside as hallowed ground. Places for grieving and remembering and honoring. Such a place was the Laboring Sons Cemetery in Frederick – until the city changed its name and tore down the headstones to make way for a playground. WYPR’s Fraser Smith reports in this installment of our series, “Last Rites: Death & Remembrance In Maryland.”
Back in the 1990s, Frederick resident Jackie Berry decided to do something she’d been thinking of doing for a long time. She set out to learn more about her great- great-uncle, Zachariah Daley. Berry knew he was a blacksmith and that he had willed his house in Frederick to her father. She had a picture of Uncle Zach standing on the porch of that house. Berry wondered where he’d been buried. She wrote the state for a copy of his death certificate, hoping that might offer a clue.
It did more than that.
“They sent it back and it said Laboring Sons Cemetery, Frederick Maryland. So we were wondering where was Laboring Sons Cemetery? We knew there was a Laboring Sons Park.”
The park was located between 5th and 6th streets on Chapel Alley. Berry began to unravel the story of the Laboring Sons, a burial society formed in 1839. It was made up of free blacks who were barbers, tanners, brick makers, shoemakers, blacksmiths and waiters. Some had their own businesses. They started the cemetery but by the 1940’s the group was in decline. The remaining members turned over their cemetery to the city to care for when they were gone.
“The Laboring Sons gave the land to the city and the city said it would restore it to a memorial ground.”
But the city didn’t keep its promise.
“What the city did in 1949 was to pull up all of the gravestones, headstones that were left standing… The ones that were left standing I guess they dug down into the graves and threw the headstones down into the graves of those people.”
Berry says that the graves of an estimated 1,500 souls – including, she believes, her Uncle Zack – were covered in black top. A whites-only playground was installed with swing sets and the like.
Berry was shocked and heart-sick. She had grown up in a segregated city. The fairgrounds, the move theaters, the wonderful center-city park were all “whites only.”
But this was just too much.
“I just couldn’t believe that someone could do that to a graveyard, you know, that that could happen. I was just so, so, upset, it was just…. Unbearable. And I stayed upset.”
There were some who thought what happened to the cemetery was a matter of not knowing. But a newspaper reporter in town, Patience Wait, happened upon an old map hanging in city hall. At the corner of 6th Street and Chapel Alley was the notation “Colored Cemetery.”
As it turned out, two of Frederick’s most prominent black citizens in the 1990s, former alderman Bill Lee and Bernard Brown, grand master of the Black Elks Lodge, were already on the case. They had been urging the city to acknowledge its mistake – if a mistake is all it was – and to make amends.
Brown was not willing to let the issue die.
“I’m the type of person who likes to preserve what little we have.”
This had happened at the dawn of the civil rights movement, Brown observes. So why didn’t the cemetery become an issue right then?
“My concern is that someone from the black community should have been looking out for this.”
Now someone was lookin out fo it. Yet even with Brown and Lee engaged, progress was slow. Jackie Berry saw some of Wait’s articles and called her. A long profile of Berry then appeared in the Gazette.
“Patience’s article in 2000 got the ball rolling.”
At about the same time, Jennifer Dougherty was running for mayor. She promised during her campaign to act if she was elected.
“It seems logical to say a burial ground should never become something other than a burial ground, or at least a place of honor. I’m sure it’s not the last time a municipal government missed something. Let’s hope it wasn’t malicious.”
Dougherty took office in 2002 and went to work. She approved which identified what appeared to be bones and coffins beneath the playground. Care was given to identifying those interred. Help came from a retired engineer who seems to have been with the city when the headstones were buried. He knew of a cemetery map and pointed Brown and others to its location in city hall.
Momentum grew as city hired a director of historic preservation. Barbara Wyatt was also a landscape architect. It turned out the cemetery was located in part of the city’s historic preservation district. She volunteered to design a memorial park.
When the work began, care was taken not to disturb anything. An archeologist was on site. Any remains were brought to the attention of the state’s attorney. What was so absent in 1948 governed every step.
Mayor Dougherty thought the remedy was clear.
“Turned out it was pretty easy to do also. It made it pretty. When I drive by or walk by that neighborhood my heart swells a bit because it’s treated well. It’s treated with respect.”
She thought the park was especially important, given the nation’s history, for black Americans.“The respect that you might have missed in life should be with you ever after.”Barbara Wyatt, the preservation officer, was deeply moved by the origins of the cemetery – a black beneficial society, pre-abolition and pre-Civil War. The Laboring Sons’ commitment to family, to respect for the departed and to their own values echo through more than a century.
In July 2003 the park was rededicated as a memorial ground. Wyatt read recently from a plaque on the memorial’s collective head stone:
“The beneficial society had been formed in 1839 “for the purpose of relieving or alleviating both spiritually and temporally any member of us who may be distressed and to see that his mortal remains be interred with decency.”
Then she read some of the names:
“In honor of those who rest in this memorial ground … Miranda Allen, Griffith Barnes, James Barton, Mary Batten, Maria Bias, John Bowen, Margaret Bowen, Agnes Boyd, Daniel Boyd, Francis Brighten, Harriet Brightly…”
The marker also honors “those unnamed.” Since then at least 20 more names have come to light.
Jackie Berry also spoke at the dedication. She borrowed the familiar line from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She read it again recently.
“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, their souls are finally free at last to rest in peace.”
I’m Fraser Smith reporting in Frederick, for 88-1 WYPR.
Join us each Wednesday for the next installment of “Last Rites,” as we take a look at African-American funeral homes.
The series is made possible by a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities nor the Maryland Humanities Council.
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