The rejuvenation of Cherry Hill’s Mt. Auburn Cemetery is nothing short of a pure miracle. Combined efforts of area college students, civic organizations, inmates, and local and state leaders helped push to clean and restore the cemetery, which was honored with a re-dedication ceremony last week. Though the renovations revealed have completely changed the space, a small group of professors and students at Morgan State University’s School of Architecture and Planning believe the Mt. Auburn face lift is far from complete.
“With the School of Architecture and Planning and the History Department, we plan to certainly keep on going,” said Robin Howard, associate director of the Center for Museums and Historical Preservation at Morgan State University (MSU). “Our hope is to find grants that will help the cemetery do different things. It’s an undertaking that’s going to be expensive.”
Professors of the School of Architecture and Planning began to incorporate the revitalization of the space into lesson plans during the 2007-2008 school year. Students worked to create detailed designs for a chapel, a garden, a parking lot, and a permanent structure to house information for visitors, detailing the legendary leaders interred there.”They looked at the neighborhood, the demographics, and how the neighborhood connected with the cemetery,” said Department of Landscape Architecture professor, Diane Jones. “It was an opportunity to expose our students to African American culture and to a landscape that is really important environmentally.”
“The cemetery is a major site on the Patapsco Watershed,” said Jones. “Meaning, when it rains, whatever runs off from the cemetery ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.”
The plans drafted by the students have already been approved by leaders of Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, which has owned the cemetery since its creation in 1868. The amount and quality of work done by the students would have cost the church thousands in fees and wages. “It was important to have a student presence at Mt. Auburn Cemetery,” said Dominic Gladden, a graduate of MSU’s Theatre Morgan. Joining their fellow Morganites outside of the classroom, MSU theatre students saw an opportunity to use their studies to help Mt. Auburn Cemetery as well. In 2009, a small production for the community was held where students unearthed Mt. Auburn’s historical giants onstage and brought them back to life. “Being a theatre arts major, the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Building is our playground. It was important to represent him, as well as other pioneers that helped lead us to the 21st century.” Gladden portrayed the legendary journalist, activist, and late publisher of the Afro American Newspaper, Carl J. Murphy, in a collection of monologues performed to encourage community involvement in clean-up efforts. “At that point we were really able to connect with the community,” said Howard. “We were able to invite them in, and they saw a really great performance and an interpretation of how important the cemetery is.” The performance also featured the “godmother of the civil rights movement,” Lillie Carroll Jackson, and Baltimore boxing champion, Joe Gans. Jackson and Gans, along with countless runaway and freed slaves, leaders, and African American Baltimoreans of every kind are buried on the grounds. The production was made possible by a grant from the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC). “Hopefully it stays a place where people can see these great people who contributed to Baltimore and family members can visit grave sites without worrying about the way it once was,” said Gladden. Today, interns work towards compiling information in a computerized database that holds information on who’s buried in Mt. Auburn and where. Those efforts are inching along, however, due to a lack of funding. “These are original, hand-kept records. Some of the books are from the 1800s and they really need some type of preservation,” said Howard. “In order to preserve most of those things you need certain kinds of equipment. You need a room that has the proper humidity and the proper kind of lighting. For the students who gave of their time and energy, the opportunity was nothing more than a way to give back to the very community that gave birth to what is now Morgan State University. State records show that the first classes of the Centenary Biblical Institute were held at Sharp Street Church. There, freed male slaves were trained to go into ministry until 1875, when opportunities to study in education became available and women were allowed admission. In time, the institute would give way to the historically black doctoral research institution which now serves nearly 7,500 students of all nationalities.