Forgotten but Found
Rediscovering a Piece of African American History in Middletown
Walking or driving along Middletown’s South Jefferson Street, a visitor would see what appears to be a typical residential neighborhood. But nestled between two of the houses is a historic treasure. A couple steps and a short concrete path lead to a brown-and-gray stone foundation, all that remains of the Middletown African Methodist Episcopal Church that dates back to at least 1829.
The original wooden 18-by-30 foot structure was a gathering place for African Americans in the 19th century. Destroyed by fire in 1883, the church was rebuilt the same year. In 1948 fire would again damage it, but what happened to the remaining structure is unknown. Today, only parts of the foundation remain.
Just beyond the foundation is a cemetery containing the remains of at least 77 people. The area has fallen into disrepair. One headstone is broken in half while some others are blank or have only a base. Some stones have fared better than others against the elements; words and dates are clear on several stones, but nearly illegible on others. Roots from some of the nearby trees have disturbed and moved headstones. Because it’s unclear who owns the land or is responsible for its upkeep, neighbors have pitched in and cut the grass and there have been a couple of Eagle Scout cleanup projects, but for decades the site was largely forgotten.
Until 2013. That’s when Elizabeth Ann Gardner Deering became regent for the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution Carrollton Manor chapter. Several years before, Deering read a newspaper article about one of the Eagle Scout cemetery projects. “I thought, ‘Gosh, this would be a nice project for our chapter down the road,’ so I put it in a file and when I became regent, I pulled out the folder, looked through it and that caught my eye again and I thought this would be great,” Deering says.
The group was torn between conservation of the physical cemetery and preservation of information. They chose to record the history. “If we let any more time pass, the stones would be illegible,” says RaeAnn Butler, chapter member. “They would be in further disrepair, so to capture it and preserve that history and information now is pretty important.”
The project was a first for the chapter and would include publishing a book of the information gathered. “I wanted to have a team-building exercise that would bring chapter members together with a common interest and help promote a team mentality and esprit des corps and also reach a goal which was to preserve” the historical information in the cemetery for future generations, Deering says. The group drove out to the cemetery and looked at the site. They estimated compiling the information would take about a year with the book needing about 50 pages. They were mistaken. “Initially, we didn’t realize that it was going to be that big of a project,” Deering says. “We thought it was pretty straight forward and would not be as time consuming as we subsequently found out.”
REDISCOVERING THE PAST
DAR members began their project by looking “at all the headstones and gathered all the names and information,” says Michelle Tarlecki Sterba, chapter member and lineage research chair. “Then I took every single person buried in the cemetery and looked at their children, their parents and tried to find more people buried in the cemetery which led to the additional burials.” They started with obituaries, but not much was included in the write-ups. “There [was] so much information about these people that [wasn’t] included in the obituaries that we knew we could find,” Sterba says. The book “brings these people alive because they have been forgotten. You look at the cemetery and you realize they have been forgotten so it was to pay respects to the people that are buried in the cemetery to find as much information as we could.”
Researching African American genealogy can be difficult if you are trying to find relatives before the Civil War. Instead of looking for birth or death certificates, a researcher must look through land records because slaves were considered property. Members would pore over multiple records, including births, deaths, marriages, church, military, land, equity court, wills, certificates of freedom and newspaper articles. They would spend hours at the local library, court house, Frederick County Historical Society and the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis. “Some days it was just going through microfilm, just hours of looking at every obituary … to find out if there was anyone,” Sterba says. Out of the 77 known burials, only 36 headstones remain today. There are also 12 “potential” burials possible. “We measured the entire area and it can hold 180 burials,” Sterba says.
“We don’t think there are 180 people, but there is a lot of space between some of the headstones. … It seems like there should be more rows of people buried there.” Most of the potential burials are believed to be children. “The parents were living at the time [the child] died and the parents are in the cemetery [as well as the] siblings,” Sterba says. “I think there is a good chance that [the bodies of these children] are also in the cemetery.”
Several of those buried have fascinating stories. Brothers Lewis Abraham Smith and Robert Joseph Smith maintained summer homes in the Braddock Heights area and took care of them during the winter months, including sweeping the porches of snow and making sure windows and doors were secure when the wealthy owners were away. Harmon Walker Cartnail is the only known veteran in the cemetery—he served in World War II. Susan Sands was a slave to Peter Shafer and continued to work for him after the Civil War ended. Shafer bought her a home and left her $1,000 in a trust upon his death. When she died, the trust was divided between two relatives. “There are some very interesting stories to bring these people to life,” Butler says.
By looking at census records, they were even able to find a couple of current descendants. Lisa Roy knows that two of her ancestors, who were born free and lived in the 19th century, are in the cemetery. Emanuel Bruner was chosen as a school trustee in the Middletown District in the late 1800s and also served as a delegate for the colored Republicans of Middletown to the colored Republican State Convention in 1869. His wife, Mary Margaret Bruner, cared for their eight children. “A lot of my family members had to carry papers around that they were born free,” Roy says. Their bloodline would include John W. Bruner, the superintendent of colored schools who built Lincoln High School. Her family history has been written about before, but the DAR members were able to forward her additional ancestral information, including death announcements, a will and obituaries. Roy, who lives in Colorado, also flew out two years ago when the DAR was just beginning the project. “I felt like I’m a family member, I’m a descendant and that’s the least I could do to volunteer my time as well,” she says.
There are theories as to why the cemetery fell into disrepair, but the group could find no definitive evidence to support the claim. “Churches burning [down], congregations leaving, cemeteries being unused—none of that is unusual,” says Eileen McGuckian, president of the nonprofit Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites. “It happens in every single county.” Some may say the cemetery was abandoned but McGuckian believes that view “is in the eye of the beholder. Most beholders look at the cemetery—the stones may be obscured by weeds, some may be knocked over. It may look like somebody hasn’t been there in a while so some people tend to use that term ‘abandoned,’ but it is not officially abandoned. There really are bodies there. There really are headstones there. There really is or was a congregation. … Cemeteries get old. They get maybe tucked away and they have roller coaster lives but they really [don’t get] abandoned.”
Completing the Project
Research on the cemetery took nearly a year and a half to complete. DAR members tried to uncover records from the church but were unsuccessful. “Hopefully, there were records kept but we could not find them,” Sterba says. Once she finished typing all the information, complete with detailed source documentation for each person, the book totalled 388 pages. “This is information you can take to the bank and we are very proud of that,” Deering says. “It’s quite a good feeling [to know] that we saw the project through and realized our goals.”
The book, The Forgotten: The Middletown African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery, can be found on the shelves of the DAR National Library in Washington, D.C., the Frederick County and Middletown historical societies and the Maryland Room at the C. Burr Artz Public Library. “I bet 99 percent of Frederick County [residents] didn’t know this cemetery was there, let alone the historical value of the information that we have researched and uncovered,” Butler says.
Since the research group uncovered a wealth of information, they decided to do more with their findings. “We are going to take this project to the next step,” Butler says. Partnering with the Historical Society of Frederick County and African American Resource Council, an educational symposium will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 18 at the C. Burr Artz Public Library featuring speakers discussing the importance of preserving African American history, research methods and cemetery preservation work. “This is such a really important topic to bring to light,” says Amanda Johnston, assistant director for the historical society. “We thought it was just a perfect fit for all the community partners to come together to hold an event which talks about how people can do … cemetery research and how [they] can trace [their] ancestors.”
DAR’s research will also be part of an upcoming display at the Roger Brooke Taney House titled “Illuminating the African American Journey in 1865 and Beyond.” The display will make its debut on April 11 during Bell and History Days and feature displays discussing what happened in 1865, with the end of the Civil War, up to today and the importance of preserving cemeteries and how people can do genealogical research about family members. “We feel good about what we have done as a team,” Derring says.