With the faint sound of construction work in the background, David Key and Seaven Gordon stood in a small garden enclosed by exterior walls of Frederick Health Hospital.
At first glance, the area does not seem like much — a brick walkway, some bushes, shrubbery and flowers. But a closer look shows a plaque dedicating the Greenmount Memorial Garden — and the site of what was once the largest African-American cemetery in Frederick.
According to local history books and previous reporting in The Frederick News-Post, the Greenmount Cemetery was active from about the 1880s-1920s. Frederick Health Hospital bought the land to expand the hospital, and starting in 1925, no more burials were allowed at Greenmount.
Key and Gordon, the president and vice president of African American Resources, Cultural and Heritage (AARCH) Society, said a likely condition of the land being sold was that the bodies buried there would be exhumed and interred at Fairview Cemetery — burials started there in 1925, on Gas House Pike.
But in November 2001, while doing excavation work for an addition to the emergency department, Frederick Health Hospital discovered bones believed to be from the cemetery. Then, in November 2014, more bones were found.
Kelsey Shupe, director of marketing and communications for Frederick Health Hospital, said site prep for construction began Sept. 21. Officials used ground penetrating technology (GPR) to determine if any more bones or historical items might be found.
“In the event we locate remains/memorabilia, we will work with the appropriate authorities (law enforcement, Dept. of Health, States Attorney’s Office) and AARCH Society to ensure that we follow all procedures and treat remains with compassion and respect,” Shupe wrote in an email.
Key said it’s incredibly important that this occurs, given the fact that when the hospital bought the Greenmount Cemetery, it’s evident workers did not do an adequate enough job of exhuming and moving the bodies.
“I’ve heard people say this kind of thing happens all the time, and yet, I don’t hear it happening nearly as much with white cemeteries,” Key said. “And I think that when it comes to this, it shows the disregard for human [dignity] for the families.”
He added that given conversations with hospital staff, more bones or items will be found. Gordon agreed.
“If you’re going to do large-scale excavation, then it ought to be an extensive investigation of what the land was used, prior to it being sold, going back a number of years,” Gordon said. “I think if you’ve done an extensive investigation of the land ... you can prevent a situation like this.”
Relatively speaking, the Greenmount Memorial Garden is young by comparison to the cemetery, as a dedication ceremony was held May 19, 2018.
But more than 900 people of color were buried at Greenmount, and Key and others found it important to dedicate space at the hospital to remember those people.
When the dedication was held, many hospital employees did not know about the cemetery’s history, Key said.
“I … always liken to Mount Olivet Cemetery,” Key said. “If the [Frederick Keys] ball field needed to be expanded, can you imagine if they did that, and what kind of response they would get from the people who [had relatives] at Mount Olivet? I think it would be quite different.”
Much of the work for the dedication pamphlet was the product of David Wallace, a Frederick resident who spent countless hours in the Maryland Room at C. Burr Artz Public Library in Frederick.
Wallace, a former longtime historian with the National Park Service, compiled a list of more than 900 people buried in the cemetery by combing through old newspaper clippings on microfilm, from the 1880s to 1950s.
“It’s just that I recognize a gap in information about people in Frederick, African Americans particularly,” Wallace said. “I was retired, and I had the time to do it. It’s my small contribution.”
“I know that there are lots of people today, African Americans who are researching their family history, and this makes it more easy for local people,” he added. “I’m heard from a couple people, saying that list of names led them to information about their ancestors here in Frederick, and there’s a personal satisfaction for those family members to be able to trace those family members back into the past.”
Wallace said he learned about AARCH through Mary Mannix, who manages the Maryland Room. Mannix said it’s “phenomenally important” that people like Wallace preserve and compile local history.
“If it wasn’t for people like this doing these projects, we would be at a loss, trying to help people with their projects,” Mannix said.
Paying respects next year
After the hospital finished its addition to the hospital, AARCH and other community members are planning another dedication at Fairview Cemetery next spring or summer, after any other remains are found and respectfully transported.
Fairview was purchased in 1923 by a committee of local African Americans for $5,500, and the first burial was 1925, when burials stopped at Greenmount, according to “Memories of Frederick: Over on the Other Side,” a local history book by Joy Olney.
Key and Gordon believe that construction workers will find more bones or items — and it is vital that they are given the respect they deserve.
“That was the importance to us, that these are people, their families buried them here, and expected them to rest in peace,” Key said. “And for some, this is the third time now they have proven there’s more remains here that we’ll never know [everything] about. it’s just important to the families and the folks who were buried here, it’s just really important that we treat those with respect.”