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  • Elgin Klugh and Isaac Shearn

Laurel Cemetery Memorial Project

On Belair Road in East Baltimore, there is a shopping center directly across the street from Clifton Park. The establishment is well patronized, and the parking lot is generally busy with vehicle and foot traffic. Due to the efforts of the Laurel Cemetery Memorial Project, there is now increasing awareness that the entirety of this property is the location of Baltimore’s historic Laurel Cemetery. 


Incorporated in 1852, Laurel Cemetery was a premier burial site for people across Black Baltimore’s socioeconomic spectrum—arguably the black counterpoint to Baltimore’s then segregated Greenmount Cemetery. Although the cemetery was condemned and officially moved to a new location over 60 years ago, archeological excavations led by University of Baltimore archeologist, Ron Castanzo, and Ground Penetrating Radar conducted by MHT archeologists Zachary Singer and Matthew McKnight, have proven that many burials remain under the grass and pavement.


We founded the Laurel Cemetery Memorial Project, Inc. (LCMP) in 2020 as a 501 (c)(3) organization. Our members represent academia, descendants, community residents, and local heritage professionals. Our mission is to erect a permanent memorial in recognition of the thousands of African Americans who were laid to rest at the historic Laurel Cemetery, ensure the safety and stability of the site into the foreseeable future, and to educate the public about the rich history of the cemetery and the lives of those buried there. We are steadily working towards these goals.


Figure 1. Cover of A Place for Memory.


The bulk of our accomplishments thus far have been in the areas of research and public presentations. Our March 2023 book, A Place for Memory: Baltimore’s Historic Laurel Cemetery (Rowman & Littlefield), tells the full story of Laurel Cemetery—how and why it was created, how it was operated, the community and individuals that it serviced, the struggle to maintain it, and how the site was condemned, demolished, and reconfigured as a shopping center. Pursuant to the collaborative nature of the LCMP, we constructed this book as an edited anthology so that multiple voices could participate in telling the story of Laurel Cemetery. Contributors include descendants, professional archivists, and anthropologists. Throughout the text, we emphasize the stories of individuals, many of whom appear all but forgotten to public memory.


Among the individuals buried at Laurel Cemetery are leaders in business, education, religion, medicine, civil rights, the military, masonic organizations, and many, many average laborers and washerwomen who supported the advancement of African American institutions, organizations, and causes.  Relatedly, we challenge readers to research and learn more about such individuals as Rev. Harvey and Amelia Johnson, Isaac Myers, George A. Hackett, John W. Locks, Rev. Daniel A. Payne, Dr. George W. Kennard, Rev. Samuel W. Chase, Frederick and Ellen McGinnis, Roberta Sheridan, Rev. William M. Alexander, Dr. Reverdy Hall, Captain Alexander Haley, Dr. Henry J. Brown, Alfred W. Handy, and Charity Govans. The stories of such individuals are told in A Place for Memory, and we continue to present such biographies in our ongoing project newsletter. Given the large burial population, we have no shortage of stories to tell.


A most significant part of our research of the burial population is centered around our partnership with the Baltimore Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (BAAHGS). As several members of BAAHGS are part of the Laurel Cemetery descendant community, there is a collective interest in researching Baltimore City death certificates to reconstruct a Laurel Cemetery burial list. Because the original list of burials was lost or destroyed during the 1950s, the only method to reconstruct this information is to complete an exhaustive search of the death certificates. Working with archivists at the Baltimore City Archives and the Maryland State Archives, LCMP and BAAHGS volunteers search and extract up to 21 categories of information for each individual who died in Baltimore and was buried at Laurel Cemetery. Thus far, over 20,000 Laurel Cemetery burials have been identified from a search of approximately 30% of relevant records. A trend analysis of the currently available data estimated that the total number of Laurel Cemetery burials to be found will be between 37,000 and 42,000.


Figure 2. Laurel Cemetery Task Force meeting.


The collaboratively built list of burials will be a crucial resource to connect further with the descendant community.  Once online and searchable, family researchers will be able to use the list of Laurel Cemetery burials to find the names of ancestors, known and unknown. The multiple data points gleaned from the death certificates will provide further insights into past lives. Such a resource will provide important information about individuals and will enable broader inquiries into the burial population such as cause of death trends, residential patterns, and analyses of occupational categories, age of death, and more.


For us, a landmark achievement of the LCMP will be the creation of Laurel Cemetery Memorial Park. This involves reclaiming a small area of the existing shopping center property as a place to acknowledge and memorialize the Historic Laurel Cemetery. Such a park will provide a permanent place for learning about the cemetery and associated individuals.  More importantly, we want to work with the descendant community to create a dignified and respectful place for reflection. When we initially engaged in archeology at the site, we did not know the extent of what we were getting into. Collaboration with the descendant community has deepened the importance of the work and the drive to continue.


To learn more visit our website: https://laurelcemetery.omeka.net/


Figure 3. Archeology at Laurel Cemetery.

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