Preserving history: volunteers work to restore forgotten historic African American cemetery in Halfway, Md.

Maryland

HALFWAY, Md. (WDVM) — A forgotten historic African American cemetery in Halfway, Maryland has been hiding almost in plain sight, tucked away by homes on Clinton Avenue.

Nearly 10 years ago, historian and former Hood College professor, Dr. Emilie Amt thought the Halfway Colored Cemetery, now known as the Halfway African American Cemetery, was lost forever. What she didn’t know was that the cemetery was sold and split up into different lots, which have since been built over, leaving only a portion intact but in extreme disrepair.

Dr. Amt began searching for the cemetery after researching a man, who was a member of the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hagerstown, who was supposedly buried in the cemetery. She was told that the cemetery was located behind the old Jewish cemetery but because the cemetery is landlocked between different houses and yards, the burial ground is not visible or publicly accessible from Clinton Avenue. It was a number of years later when she received an email from Elizabeth Paul, whose yard borders the cemetery, reached out to her, asking about the cemetery.

Plat map of Clinton Avenue and the Halfway African American Cemetery

“We don’t know what the origins of the cemetery were. We have a few names of people who were buried here in the 1840s and onward,” Dt. Amt explained. “But in 1897, this property that was already a cemetery was bought by the Good Samaritans of the Black Fraternal Order in Hagerstown.”

According to Dr. Amt, the cemetery was used predominately by the African American churches in Hagerstown up until the 1930s. She and Paul hope to reconnect the people buried on Clinton Avenue to their descendants. After connecting a few years ago, they formed the Friends of the Halfway African American Cemetery.

“People who were buried here were mostly members of the Jonathan Street community. People from all walks of life, buried here, and yet most of them are forgotten,” Dr. Amt said. “We don’t know most of their names. We do have 155 names of people buried here, but more than 400 people were buried here.”

Dr. Amt alongside colleagues at Hood College brought in volunteers and ground-penetrating radar to try and identify a pattern under the surface without disturbing any remaining graves. They called in Dr. Jarrod Burks, an archaeologist and Director of Archaeological Geophysics of Ohio Valley Archaeology, to survey Paul’s backyard that borders the remaining portion of the cemetery. Dr. Burks used three instruments to scan Paul’s yard, a ground-penetrating radar that transmits radio waves into the ground and listens for echoes, similar to echolocation used by dolphins or the technology used in machines like a fish-finder. Dr. Burks also brought a magnetometer that scans for can changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, and an electromagnetic conductivity meter.

Dr. Jarrod Burks explaining equipment to Hood College students

“We’re always looking for different clues, you know, to show us where graves might be so it’s all about looking for patterns and like those rows of things,” Dr. Burks explained. “Because rows of things don’t normally occur in nature. But they do occur in cemeteries.”

Elizabeth Paul lives on a portion of what used to be the Halfway African American Cemetery. She started researching the cemetery after discovering that one of her neighbors was drinking and littering in the abandoned space. She went to the county in an effort to figure out who actually owned the land. When she discovered the land was a cemetery, she immediately wanted to learn more. When she’s not teaching in Frederick County, she heads into her backyard to clean up and preserve the overgrown portion of the remaining cemetery with the help of community volunteers as well as students and faculty from Hood College.

“It was important to me just because people’s loved ones were buried here,” Paul said. “But then in the past year or so with some of the racial reckoning in our country and a greater awareness by more people that only part of our history is usually taught or told or saved. It makes it that much more important.”

During her research, Dr. Amt discovered that a number of veterans were also buried in the Halfway African American Cemetery. The Friends of the Halfway African American Cemetery will be holding a Veteran’s Day ceremony held at the cemetery next weekend to honor the veterans who can be traced as far back as the American Revolution.

For more information about the Halfway African American Cemetery, please visit their Facebook page.

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