The Cemetery’s Heritage + Historical Significance
Historical and Cultural Landscape:
Our Own Environmental Sanctuary
“The weeds and tilted monuments of the grounds of Mount Auburn convey an underlying beauty; a spirit of poetry, imagination, and discovery. Views to the harbor, the hills and contours of the land, and the winding paths, which create mystery and relief, give additional meaning to a city landscape often too simplistic to comprehend.” (Jones 238)
Mount Auburn Cemetery was, for decades, a source of pride for Baltimore’s Black community; but off-and-on throughout the years, as the Sharp Street UMC Congregation has fundraised and struggled to keep the grounds’ ownership in local, Black hands, the cemetery has struggled. Today, with partnership from WCEDC, Mount Auburn Cemetery, and many more partners, the grounds are beginning a transformation into a proper Memorial Park via a communal Ecological and Restoration Plan. While throughout the years, the grounds have seen family reunions, anniversaries, memorial celebrations, worship tours, and regular DIY family visits and maintenance, the cemetery leadership seeks to transition interest from the grounds from just a cemetery and academic heritage site, into a proper conservation preserve, and as groundskeepers deem practical, open the cemetery to the public.
- Imagine where rather than simply having seasonal lawn cuttings, the grounds can, in areas where visitors are sparse and where archiving has taken place, become home to a biodiverse group of native perennials, wildflowers, tree sapplings, and other wild brush.
- Imagine Saturday morning nature walks, birding tours, and weaving the cemetery’s streets into the wider trails network of the Gwynns Falls and Middle Branch’s trails.
- Imagine an online resource to quickly locate a grave, learn the stories of Black Baltimoreans, and regular class field trips where tour groups can reflect the history of both those interred at the cemetery as well as those whose lives shape Westport, Mount Winans, and Cherry Hill’s history today.
We invite you to learn more about this project by
- Joining us on a nature walk through the cemetery down to Middle Branch Park,
- Attending a film screening of the cemetery’s own documentary, “Sacred Ground”
- Contributing to the cemetery’s gravestone map and library
- Sharing your relative’s story on the cemetery’s digital museum blog series
- Attending a community meeting at the Boys & Girls Club across from the cemetery on the other side of Florence Cumming Park (beside Westport Public Housing)
- Giving feedback on planned site renovations, gravestone restorations, trail signage, and pathways,
- Contributing to our cemetery restoration endowment, and/or even
- Attending a Sunday or evening service at Sharp Street UMC.
Why this Project
“In…my research, this lack of care came to serve not as a sign of direct neglect and abuse by property owners but more so of a sign of forgottenness and unknown property ownership” (Fletcher 5).
Quick Facts on the Cemetery
(Assembled by Justin Fair (abridged from larger presentation by Mr. Justin Fair, MCRP of Morgan State University):
● Currently rests 43,000 Baltimoreans within 33.917 acres. Is an inactive burial ground, meaning that there are no more plots for sale for internment.
● It appears that a cemetery-as-a-business model is how most operate, not as non-profit endeavors. Yet it is privately-owned without a consistent campaign to finance its ongoing maintenance.
A Cemetery as Culturally Significant
● “Rural Cemetery”, curvilinear in form; “pastoral” setting / “rolling and open landscape”; plots vary from grave markers, to monuments, to headstones, to none at all. Some shallow burials result in infill of depression.
● Blacks have different environments views and behaviors than Whites (Parker; Jones 230) – spiritually “the growing concern for eternal salvation and health became prevalent, cemeteries abandoned traditional urban forms and locations by taking on aspects of the country or rural form to create pure and sacred space.” (Jones 230)
● Rural cemeteries purposely contrast “the structure of urban life ending in death to the ethereal and cerebral environment of life ever after.” “Rural cemeteries provided both instruction and pleasure by allowing visitors to enter in a state of possible anxiety and deliberate purpose, and hopefully depart calm and contemplative.“ (Jones 231)
Cemeterial Practices / Site Design
● Cemetery grounds allow for visitor to be in ‘full physical harmony’
● Blacks emphasize the free-flowing quality of the natural world, but to Whites this appears sloppy and unrefined. Whites think of cemeteries as rows of neatly kept graves, not pastoral landscapes.
● Grave markers vary from ‘improvisonal”, to traditional european norms, to not being permanent at all – [Current day observance includes] a variety of plants, wooden boards, statuary, dolls, photos, or fabric”
● Ethereal grave markers = Ongoing rituals, not an interest in permanence.
● Current grounds are the result of ““a lack of collective personal responsibility for upkeep of the plots.” (Jones 234)
Black Baltimore’s Views have changed from 1882 to 2018
Today there’s a strong contrast between today’s families’ views of grave care and that of past families. There’s still a care of the cemetery as a “sacred space…spaces of connection…communion with the ancestors” (Jones 236; Barrie 2010).
● 1882: “non-interference with nature” (Jones 235). Grave markers could be temporary or permanent, depending on the family’s beliefs and upkeep
● 2018+ – Plots might include sculpture/monument upkeep or may include plastic ornament and momentos.
Although, today’s modern burials include embalming, a concrete encasing of the casket; full-time groundskeepers to keep grave pristine. This belief is a direct contrast to older beliefs.
In addition, many families’ loved ones are now buried at other popular memorial parks and share programming with funeral homes’ life celebration venues, like King Memorial Park (in Dogwood, MD) and March Funeral Homes.
In short, we are Reconnecting the Cemetery with the Westport Neighborhood of and with Middle Branch Park
WCEDC is working with community partners to reconnect social bonds and fund physical improvements:
● The Waterview Ave. bridge faces both Mount Auburn’s entrance gates, and monumental signage. High speeds on Waterview Ave discourage access to cemetery.
● Sharp Street UMC’s absence has left a vacuum of communal memory of the cemetery’s significance, especially to today’s youth.
● Sharp Street UMC has largely lost vestiges in the Westport community as its congregation has moved over the years. Its 1978 NRHP history does not even reference a Westport location, yet did you know—the Mount Winans UMC, even though Mount Winans UMC’s building was formerly the Sharp Street Mission?
Join us as we reestablish Mount Auburn as a green anchor to the Middle Branch Park! View Project Updates for next steps.