Monday, June 17, 2019

A Teacher Among Teachers: The Reverend Samuel Ward Chase (1805?-1867) of Baltimore

Samuel Ward Chase (1805?-1867)

©Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland State Archivist, retired

On March 20, 1867, the Reverend Samuel Ward Chase died at his residence, No. 81 Leadenhall Street in South Baltimore. After the funeral at his residence, 100 carriages followed his coffin to Laurel Cemetery on Belair Road where he was buried “according to the solemn rites of the orders to which the deceased belonged.” The Baltimore Sun reported that “the sidewalks of the streets through which the funeral procession passed … were lined with colored people,” many of whom followed to the cemetery.[1]

Samuel Ward Chase was born free in Maryland about 1800. Nothing is known of his parentage, nor little of his life in Baltimore prior to the 1830s, although it is possible that he is the Samuel Chase who appears in the Baltimore city directories as a carpenter before 1831, a trade that included making coffins and acting as an undertaker, a profession for which Samuel Ward Chase, Jr., his son, became well known in the City and whose career, until his death in 1915, accounts for numerous burials at Laurel Cemetery. [2] He probably was a prize student of Reverend Levington at the St. James Episcopal school for Free Blacks on North Street. He would lead a largely hidden career as a respected teacher of the Black community, but it was not without its very public moments in which his talents and intellect were duly recognized.

On October 19, 1851, Reverend Chase gave the dedicatory prayer at the opening of the Laurel Cemetery, and just a few weeks before his death in 1867 lectured before the Asbury Sabbath School Society at the Asbury Church on East Street, Baltimore Old Town, on “The Destiny of the colored Race and Equality before the Law.”

Undoubtedly his talk encompassed remarks he made on the 19th of May, 1862, at Israel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., which were published in the Washington Star and excerpted in the Christian Recorder:

God's dealings with the children of Ham, and their future prospects," was the topic of a lecture delivered last night in the Israel (colored) church, by Rev Samuel Chase , a colored divine of Baltimore. The speaker went back to the earliest ages, quoted largely from Bible history, and maintained that God made of one flesh all the nations of the earth. But nations, for crimes committed, have been degraded, and fallen from the high estate wherein the Creator had placed them; as in the case of the Jews, who were despised until a few years ago. The speaker argued that it was the providence of God that brought the negro here, and the colored race has been benefited thereby. The colored race here have been educated like the American family; have imbibed their political principles, but do not dare to utter them; have imbibed the same religious principles, and them they dare utter; and if the religion of the black man is wild enthusiasm, then so is that of those who taught him.

The speaker argued that the negro had the same natural faculties as the whites, and quoted examples to show that the pure, unadulterated African may become educated and respected. The black man, beyond doubt, has the same natural qualities from Mason's to Dixon's line, and from that to Sabine.

He argued that the Legislature of Maryland believed in the quality of natural intelligence, or they never would have desired to get the blacks out of the country by spending $10,00 a year for colonization.

We must elevate the negro character, and that must be done by education. The pulpit is the highest position we can attain, and we must blame our white brethren for not having a more educated ministry. The Methodist Episcopal Church (white) had been particularly backward in extending education to the colored. They told us that if the Lord called us to preach, he would put words in our mouths, ad we were told to look only to Heaven and get knowledge, while the white preachers were looking all the time in the book. The speaker did not "see the point" that an uneducated negro could draw inspiration direct from Heaven, while educated white men get it from the books.

Mr. Chase urged the necessity of an educated ministry for the colored people. "I am," said he, "a black man, and I want to see the blacks educated. I love all men, but I love the black man best, and will advance his interests first and all the time. If any colored man won't endorse this, the sooner he makes peace with God and dies, the better for him and his people." The negro could and would rise, if properly educated, and they had as much right to do so as the whites. The speaker said it would cheer his heart as much as that of the white man to see his son pleading at the bar, or his daughter taking a seat to play on the forty piany.

In conclusion, his audience were urged to liberally educate and sustain their ministers, as the surest mode of bringing the colored nation to a position of equality with the whites.[3]

Chase was best known in the National press for his meeting with President Lincoln at the White House on September 7, 1864, when he headed a delegation that presented the President with a Bible in recognition of the President’s support for emancipation.[4]

Bishop Wayman, who was also to be buried at Laurel Cemetery, was present at the presentation of the bible to President Lincoln:

On Wednesday morning, September 7th [1864], we visited Washington, D. C., accompanied by Rev. Samuel W. Chase and others, who had been appointed a committee to wait on President Lincoln, and present hima copy of thee bible which had been gotten up by the colored people of Baltimore, at a cost of $585.75. The presentation took place in the President’s room, in the presence of a large crowd of spectators. His reply to the address of Rev. S. W. Chase was plain, and much to the purpose. We then shook his hand and bade him adieu, wishing him great success in his office, and re-election for another four years.[5]

Reverend Chase’s remarks and the President’s reply appeared in the National Republican (Washington, DC), 7 September 1864, 2nd edition:

Mr. President, the loyal colored people of Baltimore have dedicated to us the authority to present this Bible, as a token of their appreciation of your humane part towards the people of our race. While all the nation are offering their tribute of respect, we cannot let the occasion pass by without tendering our respect. Since we have been incorporated in the American family we have been true aud loyal, and | we now stand by, ready to defend the country. We are ready to be armed and trained in military matters, in order to protest and defend the Star-spangled Banner. Our hearts will ever feel the most unbounded gratitude towards you. We come forward to present a copy of the Holy Scriptures as a token of respect to you for your active part in the cause of emancipation. This great event will be a matter of history. In future, when our son shall ask what mean these tokens, they will be told of your mighty acts, and rise up and call you blessed. The loyal colored people will remember your Excellency at the throne of Divine Grace. May the King Eternal, an all wise Providence, protect and keep you, and when you pass from this world, may you be borne to the bosom of your Saviour and God.

What is known of Samuel Ward Chase’s long and distinguished career as a teacher and minister in Baltimore begins in 1831 when he first appears as a teacher in the Baltimore City Directory living on Spring Street South of Pratt.

In 1834, instead of Peter Lively who the Portland, Maine congregation requested, the 4th Church Presbyterians, under the leadership of William Levington, Thomas Green and Robert J. Breckinridge (2nd Presbyterian), sent Samuel Ward Chase instead to Portland Maine at the instigation of Reuben Ruby of Portland, who despatched $20 to pay for Chase’s passage. In a letter addressed to William Levington care of Thomas Green, LIght Street, Ruby explained what he expected of Chase. Thomas Green was a Presbyterian and benefactor of the 4th Presbyterian Church, later to be known as Madison Street Presbyterian.

Ruby, who had sold the land to the Abyssinian Congregational Church of Portland retaining a hefty mortgage,and who,without authorization from the Congregation finished the interior, insisting that he be paid back, was a long time Black resident of Portland (designated a mulatto on the census records).

Ruby’s letter to Rev. William Levington is dated May 4th, 1834:

Dear Brother

I received your letter this morning and was sorry to hear that Brother Lively was not a cumming to Portland. But Believing That all things work together for good to Them that love god I feel Reconciled to the Dissappoyntment tho we ware daily Expecting Him. But Dear Brother you no what we want it if not so much a man for the school As for the ministry. if Brothe Chase is an Expearimental Preacher he is the man we Want for Religion if very low hear

If we can make out a serficient income? we should much drother he wood not keep [s]cool the first six months or a year then he Would have time to git well acquainted with The People. Brother our house has bin don for A long time. and it is to be dedicated on Thursday The 8th of May and we want for some one as soon as possilbe and if Brother Chas will Come I think he had bette make his arangement so to send for his famly if he likes hear. I shall Expect a letter soon unless he comes Immeaditly for we are now destitute. Give our love to your family and To Brother Lively, Yours in haste,

Reuben Ruby.

Chase did visit Portland, and returned home to his family at no. 5 Park Street “opposite the Engraver’s house,” to consult about moving to Portland. On September 27, 1834, Ruby wrote him directly:

Dear Brother

I receivd your letter of the 19th and was glad to hear that you And your family was all well. I have bin so much ingaged that I have Not bin able to writ before but noing You must be a waiting for a leter I now set down in hast to write you a few Lines and I inclose twenty dollars. And you had bettter take passage to Boston To avoyd all trouble. we shall expect you very soon to Portland.

Give our love to Brother Levington and Famly and our love to you wife, and Nancy and Elizabeth wishes to be remembered to you. I have not time to Say more.

Yours, obs

Reuben Ruby

Samuel Ward Chase’s church in Portland, Maine[6]

Shortly thereafter Chase did return to the Black community of Portland Maine to be their minister and chief fund-raiser to pay off the debt of the new church which is still standing today. He was successful at raising money for the church, going as far away as St. John’s in New Brunswick, Canada, where there was a significant community of prosperous former slaves, but he faced opposition from within the congregation in Portland, most likely because he preferred to teach and did not prove to be the dynamic preacher that Reuben Ruby and others in the Congregation had hoped or expected.

The opposition, led by Ruby, accused Chase unfairly in the newspapers of not representing the congregation, and keeping the money he raised for his own use.[7]

The accusations were repeated in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator.Chase sued for libel and won his case in Cumberland County Maine’s Superior Court, when the arbiters, one of whom was Samuel Fessenden, whose son was about Chase’s age and later would serve in Lincoln’s cabinet, ruled in Chase’s favor awarding him $150 and court fees. In his opinion Fessenden wrote that he would have assessed the libeler’s more but that they could not afford it.[8]

The only known specimen of Samuel Ward Chase’s handwriting,

a note to his libelers accepting nothing less than

a full recantation, and remuneration of costs and damages

Source: Maine State Archives, Chase v. Ruby et. al., Cumberland County

Supreme Judicial Court Records, (November Term, 1837) original case files

No longer universally welcomed in Portland, Chase proceeded to New York where in May 1838 he was ordained as a Congregational minister on the same day (May 25) as James W. C. Pennington.[9] Pennington would marry Frederick Bailey (under the assumed name of Johnson, later changed to Douglass) to Anna Murray on September 15, 1838 in the home of David Ruggles, a prominent New York abolitionist. Chase was not present for the wedding of Anna and Frederick, as he returned to Baltimore following his ordination, but Pennington stayed on in New York and, after the Civil War, would be called to the same Abyssinian Congregational Church in Portland where he served for three years.

After Reverend Chase’s return to Baltimore in 1838, about the time that Frederick and Anna Douglass were on their way to New Bedford, he resumed teaching. He never left the city again except for brief trips to church sponsored meetings as far away as Toronto, and to meet with President Lincoln . While initially he did perform weddings, his primary occupation was as a teacher, although the location of where he taught is uncertain.[10]

By 1860, he was married with four children, and worth, according to the census of that year, three times ($1500) that of his son, Samuel Jr., the undertaker who was living in the household.[11] At that point the family resided at 180 South Howard Street.

By 1864, when Reverend Chase presented the bible to President Lincoln, he was living at his last place of residence on the corner of Leadenhall and Hamburg Street where he died March 20th, 1867. His obituary in the Baltimore Sun reflected the high esteem in which he was held by the whole community:

The Rev. Samuel W. Chase, who died at his residence, N0. 81 Leadenhall Street, on Wednesday last, was a Presbyterian minister, and had charge of a congregation in Baltimore. He was 67 years old [sic] and a past Grand Master of the colored Masonic Order and a high official in the colored Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The funeral ceremonies took place yesterday, March 31, 1867, at his late residence, and was numerously attended by nearly all the colored ministers of Baltimore, with portions of their flock. After the service at the house, a procession formed by the colored Masons and the Odd Fellows, who turned out in large numbers, in full regalia, to pay the last mark of respect to their deceased brother. Following them, were about 100 carriages, filled mainly with colored women. The procession proceeded to Laurel Cemetery, where the interment took place, according to the rites of the orders to which they belonged.

In his lifetime, he had a high reputation among his colored brethren and enjoyed the confidence of many white persons. The sidewalks of the streets, through which the procession passed, were lined with colored people, many of the male portion joined the procession, while numbers of women, also followed to the place of interment.

Sadly today there is no trace of his gravestone, nor is it known for certain where his remains are buried. The desecration of Laurel Cemetery in the 1950s and the removal of many tombstones and remains to Carroll County has not left a verifiable record of where Samuel Chase is to be found, while the only remaining Chase tombstone is of his undertaker son on which the year of his death is wrongly inscribed.

[1] Baltimore Sun, April 1, 1867.

[3]THE CHRISTIAN RECORDER, May 31, 1862, WASHINGTON, MAY 26, 1862, text provided by

[4] At 2:00 p.m. [on September 7, 1864], a group of "the loyal colored men of Baltimore, [Maryland]" meet in Lincoln's office, where they present "him with a . . . bible . . . as a token of respect and gratitude." A newspaper reports, "The book is . . . bound in royal purple velvet, inclosed in a black walnut case, 16 by 14 inches. On one side," an etching portrays "the President in the act of striking the shackles from the slaves." Lincoln remarks, "I can only say now . . . it has always been a sentiment with me that all mankind should be free." Daily National Republican (Washington, DC), 7 September 1864, 2d ed., 2:4; Evening Star (Washington, DC), 7 September 1864, 2:4; Sun (Baltimore, MD), 8 September 1864, 1:5; New York Daily Tribune, 8 September 1864, 1:5; Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible, 7 September 1864, CW, 7:542-43. While the Baltimore Sun reported the meeting in the September 8, 1864, edition, it did not quote Chase’s presentation remarks which did appear in the Daily National Republican. 276 women and 244 men contributed to the cost of the bible, all of whom are now the painstaking focus of biographical research.

Following the dedication of the Bible on July 4, 1864, the committee tried to obtain an audience with the President to make the presentation. They finally succeeded through the intervention of R. Stockett Matthews of Maryland, Although Stockett’s original request was for women donors to be present, in the end only the men were represented..

On July 6, 1864, R. Stockett Mathews of Baltimore wrote Lincoln asking him to name the day when he could receive the committee representing the loyal colored men of Baltimore who wished to present him with a Bible. No reply seems to have been made. On August 26, James W. Tyson wrote Lincoln further, and on August 31, Mathews wrote again: ``I have the honour of requesting you to refer to the letter which was addressed to you by myself at the instance of a Committee of Colored Men of this City, and to beg that you will give me an answer to it, at your earliest convenience. I have taken it for granted that your Excellency's multifarious and harassing engagements since July 7th ult. have caused you to overlook the fact, that the colored people are quite as eager to present to you the very handsome expression of their gratitude which they have prepared---as they were to get it up---and I also venture to suggest . . . that its early presentation will be productive of some good in a public sense---independently of the profound gratification which these grateful people will feel in knowing that their superb Bible is at last in the hands for which it was designed.'' (DLC-RTL Source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 7,;view=fulltext

[5] The Christian Recorder, October 15, 1864, “Bishop Wayman’s Visits during September.”

[6] source: Edney, Matthew H. “The Highpoint of the Booster Mapping.” Section 5 of “References to the Fore! Local Boosters, Historians, and Engineers Map Antebellum Portland, Maine.” Published online, 1 July 2017.

[7] Portland Weekly Advertiser, tuesday, June 6, 1837 and June 20, 1837.

[8] The letters quoted here with their original orthography and the details of the case are from the Maine State Archives, Chase v. Ruby et. al., Cumberland county Supreme Judicial Court Records, vol 11, ppp. 598-607 (November Term, 1837), and the original case files; Also see: Cumberland County Register of Deeds, Book 158, p. 183. I am most grateful to Randolph Dominic whose unpublished “Down from the Balcony” he very kindly allowed me to have copied for my personal use, and was the source of my being aware of the case in the first place. It is a study that deserves publication. Also I very much appreciate the assistance of Samuel Howes at the Maine State Archives who tracked down the original case papers and the recorded case, and sent me images.

[9] The American Quarterly Register, Vol. XI, 1839, p. 95.

[10] In 1839 he married Mr. Barney Burke to Mrs. Sarah Morse of Baltimore. In 1840 he married Mr. Charles Biays to Miss Catharine Boardley, both of Baltimore. In 1841 he married Mr. Charles C. Johnson to Miss Lucinda Davis, also both of Baltimore. All were recorded in the Sun (October 5, 1839, January 6, 1840, and November 27, 1841. No other marriages have been located to date (June 17, 2019). They were probably performed at the 4th Presbyterian Church which was located at Saratoga and Holliday streets. The 4th Presbyterian was a black congregation with initially white ministers including two friends of Reverend Samuel Ward Chase, Reverend Gibson and Reverend Guiteau, the former from Philadelphia and the latter from New York. The congregation met in a building that was apparently sold or rented to them by the Reformed Presbyterian Church in May of 1833 (Baltimore Sun, May 6, 1833) and is described as being 47 feet 6 inches front by 65 feet deep, containing 6 pews, nearly new and built of the best materials. In August of that year, Reverend Mr. John Gibson, Samuel Ward Chase’s sponsor and friend was preaching there. In 1835 Reverend Mr. Floyd led the congregation. Thomas Green, a prosperous Black Barber, left the congregation sufficient funds for it to build a new church which became the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. It continued to have white ministers until 1859, when Reverend Galbraith petitions for the dissolution of the pastoral relations between himself and the Madison Street Church. He explained that his presence was entirely unnecessary. “Besides, it seemed to be the wishes of the congregation that they should be under the sole pastoral charge of one of their own color. They wish to be independent-- on the same footing as other African churches.” (Baltimore Daily Exchange, May 11, 1859). For a time Reverend Guiteau, another white minister friend of Chase’s, served as interim pastor until the church called Hiram Revels, a North Carolina native who later was the first Black United States Senator from Mississippi. It is possible that Reverend Chase taught school at the Saratoga and Holliday location, but it is more likely that he was associated with his friend Darius Stokes’ school which competed with schools run by Mr. Watkins and Mr. Fortie. See: “The Condition of the Coloured Population of the City of Baltimore” in Reverend Breckinridge;s The Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine (1835-1841); Apr 1838; 4, 4., ff 138.

[11] 1860 Census Schedule for the 15th Ward of Baltimore City, taken on the 16th of July, 1860 (p. 51):

Samuel W Chase M 55 Maryland

Winey Chase F 40 Maryland

John Chase M 28 Maryland

Samul Chase M 25 Maryland

Henrietta Chase F 16 Maryland

Alex Chase M 3 Maryland

Robert Blackstone M 10 Maryland


"United States Census, 1860", database with images, FamilySearch ( : 12 December 2017), Samuel W Chase, 1860.

In 1850 the household consisted of six individuals, all born in Maryland and living on Eager Street, east of York Avenue.

Samuel W Chase Male 45 Maryland

Eliza Chase Female 40 Maryland

John J Chase Male 18 Maryland

Samuel Chase Male 15 Maryland

Mary Chase Female 7 Maryland

Henrietta Chase Female 5 Maryland

Source: "United States Census, 1850," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 12 April 2016), Samuel W Chase, Baltimore, ward 8, Baltimore, Maryland, United States; citing family 1104, NARA microfilm publication M432 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Fugitive Documents and Black Lives: Ernie Dimler’s Collection

Fugitive Documents and Black Lives: Ernie Dimler’s Collection

Ernie Dimler is a man on a mission. Ernie is a collector of glassware related to 19th and early 20th century industry in Maryland with an emphasis on drug companies, drugstores and apothecaries. He has the conscience of an Archivist and a Conservator who wants to display, and accurately interpret and care for his collection.

Ernie maintains a fascinating museum atop the Bromo Seltzer Tower in Baltimore where he displays his blue bottle collection and tells the history of the man who built the tower while curing Americans of the their headaches, a man who owned the Emerson Hotel where Woodrow Wilson stayed when he was nominated for President of the United States.

In the course of seeking out the documentation of the Emersons, and the bottle and related industries in Baltimore, Ernie ran across a trove of documents on Ebay that were from a large collection of Baltimore City records acquired by a well-known local collector, Whitey Mansberger, in the 1970s (40 bags for $50). Whitey’s life was well chronicled in the Sun and the Evening Sun by such well-known reporters as Earl Arnett, Douglas Birch, Jacques Kelly, Michael Olesker, Isaac Rehert, Fred Rasmussen, and Tracy Rozhon.[1] Sadly the City refused to purchase the documents back from Whitey and they were sold to collectors all over the country only to begin re-appearing on EBAY in recent months.

The Sun, October 24, 1976

What Ernie has acquired so far includes the details of the City’s contracts for repairing the city schools (white and ‘colored’), garbage and waste collection, details of contracts with the Water Board, and many letterheads and checks issued to individuals who had business with the city including providing goods and services to Bayview Hospital, all dating from the late 1860s to as late as 1901.

In the course of casting his net, Ernie has also captured some remarkable items relating to the city’s history including what is likely to prove a very rare and valuable letter from a Free Black living and working in Baltimore from at least 1840 until after 1850.

The letter is written by G[eorge] Osborn, Baltimore, to Bennett Osborn in Harford County telling him that there is no market for his ‘axeltrees’. An axeltree is made of wood or iron (the first iron axeltrees were patented in England in 1695) and are the principal axles that run between the wheels of a carriage or cart. While he could not sell the axletrees, Osborn did buy the saw Bennet wanted and billed him for it and its freight to Harford County. The details of George Osborn’s life are to be found in the census records for Baltimore City and the City Directories between 1840 and 1850. Presently it is not known what happened to him and his family after 1850, but ‘colored’ Osborns continue to appear in the City directory in the neighborhoods where George lived.

If the identification of the author of this letter is correct, it is a very rare item that documents the literacy and the entrepreneurship of a Free Black in Baltimore before the Civil War. While there are several very good secondary works by historians Bettye Gardner, Ralph Clayton, Hilary J. Moss, Christopher Phillips, Seth Rockman, Stephen Whitman, and more recently Martha S. Jones, concerning the community as a whole, little has been written about the lives of individuals and their families who formed the core of the Free Black population from carters, caterers, and domestic servants to night soil workers. Letters like this along with the in depth studies of neighborhoods from the family, tax, probate, land, and legal records provide the opportunity to not only know more, but to better understand the manifold contributions the Black community made to Baltimore’s story.

As to the recovery of the Mansberger collection, Ernie Dimler deserves high marks for his devotion to and investment in retrieving what the City allowed to be thrown away of its history. Buried in the details of those records are the interactions of named individuals who had business with the city, a history that is not only of interest to their descendants, but to those who wish to know about the services that the city provided from water to waste removal and school construction for both black and white in an increasingly segregated city following the Civil War.

[1] See: Earl Arnett, ‘Whitey’ Mansberger--A connoisseur of Historical Junk.” Baltimore Sun, November 15, 1969, “Whitey Mansberger Loves Good People.” Baltimore Sun, December 4, 1970, and “A refined collector of odds, ends will eventually find ginseng.” Baltimore Sun,, November 10, 1975, Douglas Birch, “Lease on life leads to vacation colony.”Evening Sun, August 9, 1984, Jacques Kelly, “Found 1874 check paid for City Hall plumbing.” Baltimore Sun, October 16, 2010, and Fred Rasmussen, “A proud connoisseur of historical junk.” Baltimore Sun, October 24, 2010.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Laurel Cemetery (1852-1952)

Resurrecting Laurel Cemetery, 1852-1952, 39.317453, -76.578094

Detail from Bromley Atlas of Baltimore City, 1896, plate 19, image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University

Laurel Cemetery was a non-denominational graveyard modeled on Victorian cemeteries that were designed to be bucolic parks. It was set on the side of a hill with steep inclines on either side, still visible today. Initially the economic, social and religious elite of Baltimore’s Pre-Civil War Free Black community was buried there, although after 1872, Mount Auburn Cemetery on the west side of the city provided competition..

Laurel cemetery, designed by a prominent local architect, was meant to be a place of perpetual care and so it was stated in the ‘deeds’ to each of the lots. Unfortunately the deeds had no legal standing and few of the lot holders were aware that the cemetery had been condemned.. Perpetual care was discarded with reckless abandon when the cemetery was taken for non payment of taxes and sold for a song ($100). With the permission of the legislature it was agreed that the graves and gravestones would be moved to a field in Carroll County owned by one of the new purchasers, while the site of Laurel Cemetery on Belair road was developed as a shopping plaza featuring a Two Guys store. Not all the graves were moved, and today the Carroll County site is a tangle of brush and broken stones where volunteers have documented 815 graves or gravestones..

An account of the loss of the graveyard and the recent archaeological efforts to document it appeared in the British newspaper The Daily Mail in March of 2018:

'Grim secret of a Baltimore mall parking lot:

How at least 5,000 forgotten bodies were left behind when an old cemetery was taped off overnight and bulldozed to make way for a new development

Opening in 1852, Laurel Cemetery served as the resting place for thousands of African-Americans as Baltimore's first non-sectarian graveyard. It was a popular burial ground for several decades, but it fell into disrepair. By the 1950s, residents dumped trash on overgrown property and wanted the cemetery removed because it had become an 'eyesore' . The property owners filed bankruptcy and it was sold off to developers who moved an estimated 300 bodies, despite relatives protesting. But experts say they left at least 5,000 bodies behind to be bulldozed and paved over to create a parking lot and shopping center. Archaeologist Ronald Castanzo found human remains on the property, including the top of a tombstone poking out from a grassy area that was not paved over.


PUBLISHED: 11:22 EST, 6 March 2018 | UPDATED: 13:28 EST, 6 March 2018''

Parts of the cemetery were sold off for a gas station in the 1920s after an unsuccessful court case to prevent the sale. There is currently a used car lot on the site of the main entrance and administration building. The coordinates 39.317453, -76.578094 lead to a current google map and view of the site.

In a posting on juliopkny (View posts) provides an undocumented overview of the story of Laurel Cemetery and points to the pioneering work of Ralph Clayton, who with Alma Moore, provided the first incomplete listing of burials and a well documented history of the death of Laurel Cemetery.


By juliopkny

On July 14, 1852 the Laurel Cemetery was incorporated and a charter was filed under the name of "The Laurel Cemetery of Baltimore" on land purchased on Belle Air Avenue (now Gay Street) from a wealthy Land Owner. The land had been used for years as a burial ground for servants of local merchants and land owners including Johns Hopkins. Laurel Cemetery became the first black non-sectarian cemetery for the exclusive use of Blacks.

During the Civil War the Federal Government was faced with the problem of where to bury Black union Veterans with honor. Portions of cemeteries were seized and converted to national cemeteries, in many cases without the consent of the owners. "Laurel Cemetery was no exception. More than 230 Black Civil War veterans were interred in the cemetery between September 1863 and February 1866."

In 1911, while widening Belle Air Road the City, without the permission of the Federal Government disinterred the remains of the Civil War Veterans from the Laurel Cemetery. The remains were re-interred at Loudon National Cemetery on Frederick Road.

Sometime around 1920 a road (Elmely Avenue) was constructed on the southern bounds of Laurel. Not long after the new tenants moved into their homes they began dumping their refuse over their fences into the cemetery. This along with the lack of proper care from the cemetery owners, led to the demise of one of the most beautiful cemeteries the Baltimore area had ever known. Efforts for a solution to Laurel's problems continued for the next four decades.

In a group of legal maneuvers conducted by city law officials and a group of real estate operators who had formed a corporation, to buy the cemetery for themselves. In 1958, aided with the help of legislation initiated by Marvin Mandel, leader of the city delegation to Annapolis, and later governor, the corporation acquired title to the cemetery and through a complex land acquisition purchased Laurel Cemetery for the sum of $100.00.

The corporation then purchased 4 1/2 acres of farmland on Hodges Road in Carroll County renaming it Laurel Cemetery, and supposedly re-interred 200 of the approximately 7,000 bodies believed to have been buried at Laurel Cemetery. Even as the bodies were being removed a funeral was taking place in the cemetery (1957). In 1962 a Two Guys Department Store and parking lot was constructed on the site. A year later the assessed value was $229,660 for the land and $426,000 for improvements. Today Laurel Cemetery is a tangled mass of woods surrounded by a development of expensive homes!

See also "Black Baltimore - - 1820 - 1870; By Ralph Clayton.

It is the goal of the BAAHGS-Agnes Kane Callum Chapter to resume Ralph Clayton and Alma Moore’s work on the burials at Laurel Cemetery, transcribing and compiling a roster of all burials at Laurel prior to its closure in 1952. The objective is to provide an on-line index of burials similar to that which is available for Mt. Auburn Cemetery. In addition, biographies will be written of those interred in Laurel to the extent that biographical information can be found. In that way the perpetual care that was promised but abandoned by 1952 will be provided virtually and those who were interred there not forgotten.

The magnitude of the task is considerable. Volunteers will have to work their way through about 860,000 images of death certificates on 264 reels of film (MSA CM1132 for 12/1874 through 12./1952). How many burials there were at Laurel remains to be seen, but the most active period will probably prove to be prior to 1920 for which there are 143 reels of death certificate images.

The story of the cemetery and its role in the Black Community is one that deserves such attention, from the graves that were robbed by the caretaker and sold to area medical schools for dissection, to the first race riot in Baltimore County the only victim of which was buried there, to the annual memorial services at the graves of Black Veterans of the Civil war, and to the dedication of monuments to religious leaders such at Bishop Payne at which Frederick Douglass spoke. The lives of those buried there matter and it is time they are resurrected from the oblivion to which a few greedy developers consigned them.