Inmates rehabilitate Mount Auburn Cemetery

Ben Halvorsen

mount auburn 1

Under rainy skies, city and state officials, church-members and residents assembled for the re-dedication of Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Photo by: Ben Halvorsen

Baltimore’s oldest black cemetery – a source of heartache and controversy for years as it became overgrown with weeds, briars and trash – was rededicated this week after a program using state prison inmates cleaned it up.

Mount Auburn Cemetery was the scene of a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday to mark the occasion.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Gary Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), as well as the Abell Foundation and many local church leaders and residents, turned out at the South Baltimore burial ground amid heavy rain to acknowledge the improvements.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, once known as “The City of the Dead for Colored People,” was founded in 1868 at a time when blacks and whites in Baltimore could not be buried near each other.

 Over four years, inmates removed 300 dumpsters full of weeds and debris from Mt. Auburn. (Photo by Ben Halvorsen)

Over four years, inmates removed 300 dumpsters full of weeds and debris from Mt. Auburn. (Photo by Ben Halvorsen)

Many prominent figures in Baltimore’s history are buried there, including Joseph Gans, the lightweight boxing pro who was the reigning world champion from 1902 to 1908, John Henry Murphy Sr., the founder of the Afro American newspaper, and William Ashbie Hawkins, one of Baltimore’s first African American lawyers and one of the first African Americans to run for a US Senate seat in Maryland.

Despite its historical significance (including its recent admission in 2001 to the National Register of Historic Places), the cemetery’s condition had deteriorated over the last 20 years, prompting numerous complaints and clean-up efforts that never seemed to keep up with the weeds and vandals.

Efforts to help the cemetery’s owner, Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, pay for upkeep met with mixed success.

Gov. Martin O'Malley atthe rededication of Mt. Auburn Cemetery. (Photo by Ben Halvorsen)

Gov. Martin O'Malley at the rededication of Mt. Auburn Cemetery. (Photo by Ben Halvorsen)

The recent restoration process started four years ago under a partnership between Baltimore City, DPSCS, and the Morgan State University Center of Museum Studies and Historical Preservation.

Assisted by a $90,000 grant from Abell, the project was largely completed by inmate crews.

“Since September of 2008, 41 of our inmates have worked more than 2,400 days in this cemetery,” Maynard said, in a DPSCS press release. “They’ve cleared 300 dumpsters full of trees, weeds and debris.”

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  • David Kennedy

    Sometimes, a little bit of irony goes a long way.  Slaves cleaning up a cemetery for black people.  Really.  I would wager most of those slaves, uh, I meant inmates are imprisoned for non-violent {cannabis possession} “offenses”.  

    My prayer:  that they sprinkled the grounds with seed, and that come September, the place is sky-high with pot plants, free for the picking.  If that happens, they’ll deserve a medal. And a get-out-of-jail-free card. 

    Legalize it now, for goodness sake!

    • Anonymous

      You really trivialize the crime of slavery by tossing the term around so lightly.

      The inmates volunteered for the work detail and were paid for their labor, thus not meeting any meaningful definition of slavery. And inmates only became inmates after due process of law, unlike slaves.

      Moreover, you have absolutely no f-ing clue what crime(s) the inmates on the work details were incarcerated for.

  • Anonymous

    True irony is that O’Malley has sent so many Black males to prison both as mayor and as governor, lest we forget the hundreds of thousands of illegal arrests under his belt. His whole quip about human dignity is just outrageous. It’s funny how Abell finds the money to support work for inmates but Abell and the other shadow government groups can’t muster any resources to provide jobs that keep these people out. 

    Prison is an awful place to do service-learning especially when those jobs are only available to you as an inmate. Also the amount that we spend keeping these guys in approx $22,000 per 30,000 inmates could go a long way towards providing education and livable wages to people.

  • Really?

    “It’s funny how Abell finds the money to support work for inmates but Abell and the other shadow government groups can’t muster any resources to provide jobs that keep these people out.”
    That statement’s ridiculous. At least maybe look at their grants list and funding priorities before making these claims. Workforce development is funded by MANY “shadow government groups” (also ridiculous claim) and OF COURSE they’d love to keep folks out of prison.

  • Unellu

    Incarceration is a profitable industry in America.  It supports an entire army of lawyers, prison guards, judges and posturing politicians, yet it does my heart good that prisoners have rehabilitated these hallowed grounds where prominent African Americans–significant historical figures–were laid to rest.  Work never killed anyone–I don’t agree with that glib saying, but work of this sort is uplifting.  Considering we put away more African Americans, than other races in prison, I am sure many among those who renovated this grave site were African Americans.  This is not just social service they have done.  They have succeeded in rededicating an African American memorial and by doing so they have brought themselves kudos, acknowledgement and become a part of history.  At the grave site there should be a plaque with the names of all those who worked on its improvement.  And the stories these prisoners care to share with the rest of us–why they landed in prison and how they felt about the rehab would make a great novel.  I sure hope a talented biographer or a novelist will tell that story someday.  We wouldn’t let the Arlington Cemetery go to seed would we?  I am glad we had enough reverence and sense of fair play to save Mt.Auburn.      

  • Walter

    The Cemetery looks nice, I used to drive by it and almost cried because of all the overgrown trees and weeds.  I ask why are they using these bad inmates instead of volunteers from our Black churches?  


    • Esr759

      Does it really matter that inmates or volunteers cleaned the cemetary?  It seems obvious to me that there weren’t any volunteers to do it or it wouldn’t have gotten in such “grave” condition (pardon the pun).  This chance may have given the inmates a sense of purpose.  Not only are they inmates, but they’re human.

      • Theclockstrikes13

        Very good comment

  • Theclockstrikes13

    I see and read that so many people are commenting on the inmates, and not so much on the cemetary. Does it really matter that the inmates took the time, pride, and vision to do what no one else took time to do. I thinks it is a very good thing to have inmates do jobs in the city that others care not to do. I applaud everyone who took the time to plan this, and getting the job done. They were apart of the vision, and part of the plan by state and local leaders, bottom line…..the job got done.

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