Laurel Cemetery Project Symposium
The Laurel Cemetery Project Symposium will bring together community residents, descendants, amateur historians, scholars, preservation professionals, students, and other interested parties in a public presentation and discussion of project findings. The symposium is free to the public and will include presentations on archaeological, historical, and genealogical work relative to the site, a panel on the protection of African American burial sites, and a facilitated community discussion to collaboratively outline a strategy for respectfully memorializing the site.
Additionally, a timeline exhibit will be presented at the symposium displaying important dates related to the operation of the cemetery, biographical sketches of individuals buried there, issues related to its demolition and partial relocation, and present day concerns for preservation at the main site in East Baltimore, and the site in Carroll County where a fraction of the graves were moved.
Funding for the symposium has been provided by Maryland Humanities, Coppin State University, the University of Baltimore, and the Thomson-Carter Family Fund.
Laurel Cemetery is shown on Gray's New Map of Baltimore by Frank A. Gray, published in 1876.
Laurel Cemetery 1852 -1957
Laurel Cemetery was incorporated in 1852 as Baltimore’s first nondenominational cemetery for African Americans. The location chosen was Belle Air Avenue (now Belair Road), on a hill long used as a burial ground for free and enslaved servants of local landowners. Laurel quickly became a popular place of burial for people across Black Baltimore’s socioeconomic spectrum, including the graves of 230 Black Civil War veterans. After its creation, Laurel Cemetery was known as one of the most beautiful and prominent African American cemeteries in the city, with at least 5,000, but perhaps closer to 10,000 burials occurring at this site during the years of its formal incorporation.
Serving as the commemorative center for the African American community in the late 1800’s, annual parades and Memorial Day gatherings to honor and decorate the graves of the Black Civil War veterans occurred regularly at Laurel Cemetery, which was also the resting place of many prominent members of Baltimore’s African American population. Historical records show that in 1894, Frederick Douglass traveled to Laurel Cemetery to speak on the occasion of the unveiling of a monument honoring Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, who served as the sixth Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopalian (A.M.E.) church, and was a founder and former president of Wilberforce University.
The decline of Laurel Cemetery started in the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1911, the remains of the Civil War veterans were removed and reinterred at Loudon Park National Cemetery to accommodate the expansion of Belair Road. In 1920, Elmley Avenue was created and row houses were built along the newly constructed street on the southern boundary of the Cemetery. In 1930, a portion of the grounds were sold for the construction of a gas station, and the offices of the Laurel Cemetery Company were moved offsite. This highly contested sale drove a wedge between the private owners of the cemetery and the deed holding descendants of the interred.
By the 1930s the site had become overgrown and garbage-strewn, and the owners of the cemetery failed to uphold their duties in maintaining the property. In May of 1948, members of the Belair Edison Improvement Association called for the demolition of Laurel Cemetery, which declared bankruptcy in 1952. Legislation passed in 1957 by Maryland Lawmakers provided the legal justification for the sole shareholder of the now defunct Laurel Cemetery Company to sell the land to the McKamer Realty Company for $100 in 1958.
Although the McKamer Realty Company was founded for the express purpose of purchasing the cemetery by two employees of the Baltimore Law Department, an internal review by the Mayor’s office found no evidence for a conflict of interest and the sale went through, netting thousands of dollars in profits for the owners upon selling the rezoned property. A series of lawsuits seeking justice for the disenfranchised descendants failed to prevail in the courts and thus, after being in existence for 106 years, Laurel Cemetery was leveled. Some the remains of those buried at Laurel were sent to cemeteries in Arbutus in Baltimore County and an estimated 350 remains were reburied at the new Laurel Cemetery in Carroll County. Unfortunately, this new site has also not been maintained.
In February of 1962, the former site of Laurel Cemetery became the new location of Two Guys Department Store. Today it is the site of the Belair-Edison Crossing Shopping Center, and home to several businesses. The Shopping Center is a heavily traveled and highly valued local establishment – most recently sold to a Florida based-business in 2014. However, many current patrons and nearby residents have no knowledge of the site’s former purpose and significance.
The Laurel Cemetery project began in the Summer of 2015 as an inter-institutional project for students interested in cultural resource management, history, archeology, and environmental science. Initially begun as a collaboration between faculty from the University of Baltimore and Coppin State University, the project expanded to include students from the Community College of Baltimore County, Towson University, and Morgan State University. Additionally, volunteers from the Agnes Kane Callum Baltimore Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society have contributed significantly to researching the identities of interred individuals and locating their descendants.
Archaeological excavation intended to assess the presence and condition of burials still interred at the original site began on June 22, 2015 and was formally concluded in July 2017. Since the site of the former cemetery is currently being used as a shopping center, excavation was done in an open field adjacent to the parking lot. Additional research methods used in this project to investigate the cemetery include mapping and remote sensing with magnetometer and ground penetrating radar.
Results from the magnetometer and ground penetrating radar confirmed the existence of burials under the parking lot as well as under the unpaved areas of the property. Artifacts recovered during excavation include: human skeletal remains, caskets and casket hardware, gravestones, and early 20th century household items.
The second component is ongoing and includes an ethnographic and historical study incorporating oral histories and historical records aimed at understanding the material, sociopolitical, and symbolic contexts surrounding the use and ultimate destruction of Laurel Cemetery.
Ethnohistorical research, including archival research and oral history, is currently being used to collect historical documents and information about individuals buried at the site, to identify and collect oral histories from descendant community members, and to record public perceptions and commentary. Goals are to gain an understanding of the size of the cemetery, the significance of its operation in the African American community, reasons for its decline, and legal processes and protests concerning its demolition and partial removal.
Another major goal is to erect an historic marker at the site so that those who pass by may know of its existence. Additionally, we shall find appropriate venues (web sites, publications, archives) to warehouse information for those who want to learn more about the lives of those buried there, and their contributions to Baltimore’s growth and development.
Elgin Klugh, Ph.D.
Coppin State University
Elgin Klugh is an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Social and Political Sciences at Coppin State University. He is an alumnus of Morehouse College and he holds a Ph.D. in Applied Anthropology from the University of South Florida. His primary research interests include heritage, cultural landscapes, community revitalization, and Cultural Resource Management.
Ronald Castanzo, Ph.D.
University of Baltimore
Ronald A. Castanzo earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology in 2002 from The Pennsylvania State University and is currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Baltimore, where he also serves as Assistant Dean of the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences. His research interests include the evolution of political institutions; the development of economic stratification, social class, and ethnicity; urbanization; and GIS studies. With over a decade of experience in the precolonial archaeology of Central Mexico, his recent efforts have shifted toward historical archaeology in Washington, D.C., and in Maryland, especially as it relates to African-American settlement, the impact of the arrival of Europeans on indigenous peoples and the development of capitalism and industrial economies.
Isaac Shearn, Ph.D.
Coppin State University
University of Baltimore
Community College of Baltimore County
Isaac Shearn earned his PhD in 2014 at the University of Florida and is an adjunct professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, University of Baltimore, and Coppin State University. His research is on the archaeology and ethnohistory of the Caribbean and South America, with a focus on public archaeology, developing inclusive and participatory methods. His recent efforts have been oriented toward integrating three-dimensional photogrammetric mapping techniques with more traditional archaeological methods.
This project was made possible by a grant from Maryland Humanities, through support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Maryland Historical Trust in the Maryland Department of Planning, and the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Maryland Humanities, Maryland Historical Trust, Maryland Department of Planning, or the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.