One of the largest African American cemeteries in Baltimore, Mount Auburn Cemetery hopes to enlist the community in its efforts to fix it.
Mount Auburn Cemetery is in better condition today than in the past, but there is much more needed to fully restore the grounds. (Courtesy photo)
Founded in 1872, the cemetery once known as “The City of the Dead for colored people” is the resting place for an estimated 55,000 people, most if not all of whom were African American. Located in the Westport neighborhood in south Baltimore, Mount Auburn Cemetery is owned by Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, and was the only cemetery in the city where African Americans could be buried.
Major figures in Black history including former Baltimore NAACP President Lille Mae Jackson Carroll, the first Black lightweight boxing champion Joseph Gans, and the AFRO’s founder, John Henry Murphy, are buried there among the many other African Americans from all walks of life.
But even with the numerous history-makers buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, the grounds saw neglect over the years as weeds and other plant life had overtaken the gravesites, making it impossible for people to visit. The AFRO published a story in 1944 detailing the deterioration that blighted the historic landmark in African American history.
Because of the work done by volunteers and the inmates participating in the Public Safety Works program in 2012, Mount Auburn is accessible and more presentable. Still, the cemetery faces many issues that make maintaining the grounds difficult without perpetual funding.
“Right now, we’re back to a point where it’s manageable,” Jesse Bennett, a member of the board, told the AFRO. “We need to stay where we are or it will look like that again.”
In addition to a groundhog infestation creating holes in the ground, the older burials did not get concrete vaults or liners, causing the caskets to deteriorate which created holes in the ground. The resulting uneven terrain has caused some headstones to tilt over or fall down, making cutting the grass and weeding the grounds a more complicated and costly process.
In 2013, the Baltimore-Washington Methodist Conference presented the cemetery with a grant which helped significantly fund the clearing of the weeds debris, but the board is concerned as growing season is quickly approaching and the money left from stretching out that grant will be gone after half of this year’s growing season—between April and November.
“We’re at a crossroads where we’re going to be desperate for funding just to maintain ,” Bennett said.
All hope is not lost, Jeanne Hitchcock, chairman of the board and a member of Sharp Street, explained. Because Mount Auburn Cemetery had been in such disrepair, the board had to demonstrate that they could keep the grounds presentable before they could do any fundraising, and now that it is presentable they are getting ready to launch an annual fundraiser for the maintenance and restoration of the grounds.
The challenge now will be getting enough funding to get through this growing season while fighting the never-ending battle they face in preventing the plantlife from overtaking the cemetery again.
“At this point, it’s really time to do major fundraising to endow the cemetery so we do not have to go through this anymore,” Hitchcock said. “It’s an asset of the city, it’s an asset of the state, it’s an asset of the national government by virtue of their historic preservation, and with that comes a responsibility to really have it be adequately and forever maintained.”
The board is also accepting contributions—which are tax deductible—to Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church with Mount Auburn Cemetery as the designee on the memo.
“In the environment in which we live today, an appreciation for our African-American heritage is even more important, Hitchcock said.
“It’s important for all of us to preserve our history for our future generations.”
To contribute, please make checks payable to “Mt Auburn Cemetery Company” and mail to 1215 E Fort Ave., Suite 303, Baltimore, MD 21230.