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  • Kelly Palich and Deacon Allen Greene

St. Mary's Cemetery - Why Collaboration in Archeology Matters.

Helen Keller once said, “alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”  This statement has never been truer than the collaborative work at historic St. Mary’s Cemetery in Ellicott City, Maryland between Howard County Recreation and Parks and the descendants of those buried there. Church records document at least 157 burials, with 83 listed as “colored.” St. Mary’s received the dead from the families of laborers, servants, and former enslaved laborers from Doughoregan Manor and Pine Orchard, as well as from St. Charles College, the “minor” seminary of the Maryland Archdiocese. This cemetery has a contentious history, one which was only saved due to the collaboration between archeologists, the local government, descendants, and the local community.


A life-long resident of Howard County with ancestors that date back to at least the mid-1700s, Deacon Allen Greene has developed a passion for local history, especially pertaining to St. Mary’s Cemetery.  His involvement in this project is supported by the belief that if you truly want to understand the present, you must begin with your past.


Figure 1. Deacon Allen Greene with the headstone of his ancestor, Caroline Addison.


Deacon Green’s ancestors were connected to several large plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries through slavery, especially the Carroll family. As a Deacon with the Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, one research interest has been the origin of his family’s faith. As a seventh generation Catholic, the greatest impact on his own faith were his ancestors who were interred at St. Mary’s Cemetery.


For Deacon Greene, St. Mary’s Cemetery is one of the most tangible links he has to his ancestors. St. Mary’s Cemetery is the resting place of his direct ancestors, Caroline Addison, and her paternal family members, the Bransons.


Figure 2. Obituary of Caroline Addison, The Baltimore Sun, April 19, 1894.


The Cemetery is a standing monument for the people who were once enslaved by the state’s largest landholder, Charles Carroll, and the Catholic Church.  Seeing the significance of preserving this history, Deacon Greene sought the assistance from Howard County archeologist Kelly Palich to help restore a critical part of this County’s history that will further establish the foundation of a family whose past is rooted in the early beginnings of this country.


So why does collaboration in these types of archeological projects matter? The neglect of cemeteries, specifically African American, has become a chronic issue within the field of Historic Preservation. Cemeteries hold different meanings to different people. For descendants, the loss of these sites leaves them without a place to memorialize their ancestors, often the only tangible remains of their past. For archeologists, this work provides the ability to look at the social and cultural landscape, its historical context, and tie that to the present.  Collaborative based archeology, therefore, is most often the best practice for both the descendant and archeological communities to work together to pursue the most beneficial outcomes when researching and preserving historic cemeteries.

 

In 1990, the local community formed the non-profit group “Friends of St. Mary’s Cemetery,” as a response to the threat from impending development.  Just as the Friends petitioned for a geophysical survey, the developer was issued a permit to build, and the construction crew and archeologists encountered human remains. In total, five individuals, identified as both African and indeterminate descent, were uncovered. Work was immediately halted once the remains were discovered. Howard County was able to negotiate a land swap with the developer and a reinterment ceremony was performed later that year.  Luckily, through the collaboration between various stakeholders, the County was able to save the Cemetery from further desecration. St. Mary’s Cemetery proved the need for Historic Cemetery preservation laws, both locally and statewide, and influenced advocacy and awareness for cemetery preservation from that point forward.

 

In 2021, Sarah Hill and Nadia Klemensten, Girl Scouts from Troop 5916 in Howard County, reached out expressing their interest in using St. Mary’s the setting for their Gold Award projects, building from research completed for their Silver Award. In tandem with Deacon Greene, a partnership is now under way to document, preserve, and tell the story of those who are laid to rest here.


As a collaboration, all parties are involved in every aspect of the project from research, public engagement, documentation, and eventually preservation. This project has the benefit to serve as a model for best practices in collaboration with descendants and care of African American cemeteries in Maryland. The St. Mary’s Cemetery project is a project by the local community, for the local community. Giving the various stakeholders a personal stake in the process of preservation is the best way to ensure stewardship and long-term care of these sites for the future.

 

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