Arlington Heritage Memorial Grounds Corporation Leading the Way!

"The search for the missing dead in a historic African American cemetery"

Michael E. Ruane Apr 10, 2021

Janis Hagey, a member of the Friends of Historic Mt. Nebo Preservation Corporation, kneels by a grave marker in the cemetery of the old Mt. Nebo AME Church in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The organization is attempting to identify gravesites dating to the 19th century. — Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary

Sister Angeline Savoy had chipped in $5 for the church renovation project. Brother Ceaser Adams gave $2.22. And Sister Josephine Williams donated 25 cents.

John Jones and Nettie Henry gave 50 cents each on behalf of their grandmother, Sister Ellen Turner. And other members of Mt. Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church scraped together pennies.

It was the fall of 1912, and in the Prince George’s County tobacco country, money to fix the old log church was scarce. But $50.01 was duly raised, and hailed with a church proclamation.

Now, Sister Angeline, Brother Ceaser and Sister Josephine rest somewhere in a tiny cemetery where the church got its start, and their descendants in faith have launched a project to find the lost graves of some of the oldest members.

Last month, a high-tech, ground-penetrating radar scan of the Upper Marlboro cemetery was conducted to try to find scores of now-unmarked graves, some of which may go back to the era of enslavement and the origins of the vanished Black enclave.

This “was . . . a place of refuge,” Janis Hagey, of the Friends of Historic Mt. Nebo Preservation Corporation, said at the site. “A place of community, a place of respite.”

“This was their place,” she said, where “they could share their vision for the future . . . [and] console each other in a hostile world.”

The cemetery, with at least one known grave that dates to 1859, was part of a small hilltop complex that included the church and a two-room schoolhouse about two miles from the old Queen Anne’s Town tobacco port on the Patuxent River.

The school and the original log church are gone. A small wooden church, built in 1925 but vacated in the 1980s and mostly bare inside, still stands. It houses only old pews and a broken piano.

Called Poplar Ridge, the area was a place where people had huge families and walked to church across the tobacco fields, or came on horseback or in wagons.

Hagey, a retired analyst with the National Education Association, said the site was a spot where enslaved people were buried even before the church purchased the tract in 1877.

“I just have this love of folks who struggled and succeeded despite the odds,” Hagey said. “And I really see a connection with what they went through then and what we’re going through now.”

“There’s lots of connections . . . we can make and help our young people especially understand that their challenges may seem difficult but there were people who survived even greater challenges,” she said.

There are believed to be as many as 150 graves in the cemetery, about half of which are unmarked, she said.

Others are marked with rusted metal crosses, toppled headstones, or moss-covered blocks. One grave has a small stone angel, its hands clasped in prayer, perched on a headstone that has fallen face down.

Another has slipped so far into the earth that its inscription cannot be fully deciphered. But it appears to be the grave of James Y. Loveless, who died in 1859 at the age of 13.

Fallen leaves cover the ground amid downed tree limbs and yellow daffodils.

The scan of the cemetery was done over two days in mid-March by archaeological geophysicist Tim Horsley, who operated a ground-penetrating radar device that he pushed over the surface like a large lawn mower.

He placed small orange flags in the ground where the radar detected likely unmarked burials. Blue flags identified marked or obvious graves. A more detailed analysis and map will be prepared in a few weeks, he said last month.

Church lore says that graves of the deceased were often marked with symbols of their occupation. And one grave, marked with a concrete cross, also has what looks like part of the frame of an old- fashioned school desk.

There is no name on the cross, but Hagey said a schoolteacher is supposed to rest some place in the cemetery.

Another grave holds the remains of a sharecropper named Thomas M. Turner who was killed in a dispute with a white landowner in 1906, Hagey said. Its location is not now known.

The landowner, Edwin P. Gibbs, wanted Turner, who had been born into enslavement, to vacate land where Turner lived and farmed.

Gibbs had acquired the land along with a huge former plantation centered on the nearby Hazelwood mansion where many local Black people, perhaps including Turner, had once labored, Hagey said.

But a court ruled that Gibbs had not given Turner enough notice to leave, according to old news accounts. On July 3, 1906, an angry Gibbs confronted Turner working in a hay field and shot him to death in front of his two sons.

Tried that fall, Gibbs said he had acted in self-defense and was acquitted. The location of Turner’s grave has been lost.

“There were some killings, and there were some lynchings,” said Walter Savoy Sr., 88, of Accokeek, Maryland, who grew up in the area and attended the 1925 church and the school. His father and brothers are buried in the cemetery.

“I know about it, and I experienced it myself,” he said at the site. “I was treated just like a slave.”

“My mother made me stay in my place,” he said. “If I got out of place and didn’t respect the white man, that’s what I would get. I would get a lynching.”

“Some of the Blacks would not take it,” he said. “They would fight back at the white man. But [whites] would kill you . . . in those days they were allowed to treat you that way by law.”

He said his mother worked in the home of local member of the Ku Klux Klan. “She had to iron his robes,” he said.

Segregation in that part of Maryland was as deadly and rigid as it was in Virginia or Georgia, he said.

He was the eleventh of 15 children. His father, Willie, died when he was 5. His mother Maude, who had worshiped in the old log church, was remarried to a man who had 13 children.

Everyone lived in the same house, and the children slept four to a bed, he said.

Church attendance was mandatory.

“You had to go to church on Sunday unless you were dead,” he said. “You can see my mother walking to church with about 10, 12 kids behind her.”

The cemetery holds, among others, his grandparents and an uncle — the only one buried in a ground-level vault. “All of this is my family,” he said as he stood near a gnarled cedar tree.

No one seems to have been buried in the cemetery for over 35 years. And what is now Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church has since moved to an 87-acre campus in Bowie, about three miles away.

The original log structure served for 35 years, until it was renovated in 1912. But in 1919 it burned down. In 1925 the new building was constructed with wood plank, and a tall brick chimney.

The 1925 church is now boarded up, but the structure was recently reroofed and shored up with a grant from Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Historical Trust, which also funded the cemetery scan.

In the summer, a pail of water and a dipper were placed at the entrance. Many people chewed tobacco, and all drank from the dipper, Savoy said.

Over time, the building was enlarged, but by the 1960s the church needed repairs, and membership had dwindled to about to 35

In the early 1970s, the church bought a parcel of land next door and in 1984 finished a new brick building there.

Membership then grew so rapidly that the church had to relocate again, before settling in Bowie, where it has 1,200 members.

The 1925 church is now boarded up, but the structure was recently reroofed and shored up with a grant from Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Historical Trust, which also funded the cemetery scan.

The Friends of Historic Mt. Nebo want to restore the building and grounds as a historical site and memorial. It has already been designated a landmark by Maryland, and declared the oldest AME historic site in Prince George’s County.

On Monday, the friends’ project manager, Michael Gaddy, unlocked the church doors and showed the work that had been done, and that needed to be done.

The pews had been removed and were stacked vertically. The moldering piano sat against a wall.

Faded “stained glass” — actually just blue translucent paper — still covered some of the windows, and two rusted light fixtures hung from the bare rafters.

“When I was young, it wasn’t important to me,” Walter Savoy said. “I wanted to get the hell away from here.”

Now, “not only is it important to me, I bring my kids back here,” he said. “I want them to know what it was like, and where your people are . . . [and] where we came from.”

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