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Frederick News-Post
February 10, 2013
By Karen Gardner News-Post Staff

Documenting a common history: African-American cemeteries tell unique story


Rick Smith usually teaches chemistry at McDaniel College, but during the school's January term, he teaches students how to research their genealogy.

He doesn't have any trouble getting students to sign up for the class, which combines genealogical research methods and actual documentation efforts of African-American cemeteries in Frederick County. The students not only get a glimpse into their own family history, but also the family histories of a group of people who often lack solid documentation.

African-Americans in 19th-century Frederick County were often descended from slaves, and they were not buried in well-documented community cemeteries or those of large churches. Instead, they were buried in the cemeteries of small African-American churches, often without a marker. Most had little money, and markers were expensive. Also, many of these churches have crumbled away, and the cemeteries are often abandoned or built over.

Smith is documenting those cemeteries, however, working from east to west in Frederick County. He has already documented the African-American cemeteries in Accomack County, Va., home of Chincoteague, where he often spends vacations. He works from church records, tax records and census information.

At the John Wesley Methodist Cemetery in Libertytown, Smith estimates that there are two to three times the approximately 130 known grave sites in the cemetery. Some of the markers have fallen away, others simply never had markers. The entire cemetery occupies about an acre. Ironically, the Libertytown community cemetery is visible from the John Wesley Cemetery.

Most of those buried at the John Wesley Cemetery would not have been allowed to be buried in the community cemetery because of the color of their skin.

"What we're beginning to see are connections to the families of Key's Chapel and Mount Olive," he said. He has already worked with students to document the burials in those cemeteries.

Cemetery is a link to the past

A cemetery almost always surrounded a small African-American church. Such churches dotted the rural Maryland landscape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These churches were usually built on land owned by free African-Americans, often in the years before or after the Civil War.

"There's no official record of who's buried here," Smith said. Most such cemeteries did not have detailed records. Many of the people buried in them lived in a time of segregation, when job and educational opportunities were limited, and had little money.

Three of the men buried at the John Wesley Cemetery are Civil War veterans. Many more were World War I and II veterans. One veteran, Joseph L. Roberts, fought in the Civil War for Company C, 4th Regiment, an African-American unit. It is not known when he died. "We found the order card," said Jennifer Bland, a junior at McDaniel. The students have been scouring public records for information about those buried in the cemetery.

Smith and his students are examining the cemeteries, tombstone by tombstone, and carefully reading them using flour if needed. Flour, dusted on an old tombstone, helps make the lettering easier to read. The students are also organizing cleanups for the cemeteries.

The students seemed to enjoy their trips into the past, learning their own family history and the histories of people of whom little is known. "I've always been interested in family history," Bland said. She worked on her history for many years with her grandmother, and ran into some brick walls. "This helped me get past those walls," she said. Learning to read census and other vital record information was helpful, she said.

Jennifer Cooper said she hopes to add to information her dad has found about her family history. She's also interested in African-American history. She has worked as a tour guide at an Underground Railroad site in Olney.

"I want to know how did people who live here today get here," she said. "I want to find that lost piece of history." Many African-Americans didn't have last names until they were freed, so tracing their history is especially challenging.

Zach Watkins, a junior at McDaniel, said he likes learning his own family's history.

"It's cool seeing the passenger list of my family coming from Europe," he said. "You don't really understand that until you see it."

Emoff Amofa, who is from Ghana, said he finds it interesting to learn about the genealogy of African-Americans in this country. Many slaves were captured in West Africa and put on ships bound for America.

"Maybe I'm related," he said. "We're here to bring their heritage back. This is a life-changing experience. I feel like we're really doing something. We're tracking them back to where they came from."

The cemetery and the community

A house sits on the grounds of the John Wesley Cemetery; it once served as the schoolhouse, and as the meeting site for the Masonic Order that served the African-American community. It was built in 1868, before the church. All that's left of the church is the outline of the foundation. In 1976, the church merged with the local Methodist church attended by white families.

David Key, who has family members buried in the cemetery, said Lucille Coates Key, his aunt, was the last person buried in the cemetery. Key, who lived in Libertytown most of her life, died in August 2004 at age 77. The oldest known tombstone is for Mary Rollins, who died in 1855. Because the school, church and cemetery were all in one place, the spot was a central part of the African-American community.

There were two African-American churches in the late 19th century in Libertytown. While one was the John Wesley Church, connected to the cemetery, the other was in a private house bought in 1880.

Many of the grave sites have clumps of yucca plants. It was often a tradition in southern folk cemeteries to put live plants around grave sites. In Smith's comprehensive study of the cemeteries in Accomack County, Va., he found that lilies were used. Yucca seems to have been the tradition in the Frederick County area.

Honeysuckle and thorny briers have crept over many of the gravestones. The cemetery was the site of many burials in the first half of the 20th century, but, as in many older churches, the membership drifted away. By documenting the burials, Smith hopes to bring some life back to the cemetery.

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