ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Bones don’t belong in a box.
But after a townhome developer in the 1980s dug up a cemetery on the former grounds of the county’s first African-American church, two skeletons have been sitting in boxes archived in a museum.
After searching for decades, historian Janice Hayes-Williams’ new mission is to get the remains back to their proper resting place in Annapolis and restore dignity for black families whose neighborhood was destroyed by gentrification.
Locating the bones 50 miles south in Calvert County was kismet — believed to be her last gift from the late Speaker of the House.
But getting the bones back to Anne Arundel relies on extracting DNA and matching it with the living ancestors of those buried on the property that is now home to City Gate Lane townhouses.
“This thing is so huge,” Hayes-Williams said. “We’ve been looking for this dude for decades.”
That dude is Smith Price, founder of the first black church in Anne Arundel now known as Asbury United Methodist Church.
To find out if the bones belong to him, County Executive Steuart Pittman and Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley plan to ask Gov. Larry Hogan to put Maryland State Highway Administration Chief Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky on the case. If she can extract DNA, Schablitsky may be able to connect the bones to living ancestors.
Hayes-Williams’ visit to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory fell on April 11, four days after longtime Speaker of the House Mike Busch died.
She cried all the way to Calvert County.
As the commissioner for the Maryland Heritage Area Authority representing the speaker, Hayes-Williams is required to attend meetings that take place all over the state. At last month’s quarterly meeting at the Jefferson Patterson Park Museum, she collected herself and got curious.
“I asked, ‘Do you have remains here?’” Hayes-Williams said. “I thought, ‘What are the chances?’”
Yes, a museum employee looked through the lab’s database to confirm, they had them.
“I truly believe that was his (Mike Busch’s) final gift to me,” Hayes-Williams said.
The box was logged as “Smith Price,” though no one is sure whose bones they were. Maryland Historical Trust records show the bones belonged to a man in his 50s and a preteen.
Price was a freed slave who bought land on Acton Lane off of West Street, now City Gate Lane, in 1803 to found the first church for people of color in Anne Arundel County, now known as Asbury United Methodist Church. His great-grandson is Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the world’s first open heart surgery 90 years later.
Price died a few years after he founded the church on Acton Lane, later renamed Larkin Street, and would have been buried in the cemetery on the church’s property.
But as years went by, the cemetery was forgotten. The Smith Price cemetery is noted on an 1869 map, but it’s gone in the 1897 map of the area.
When the land was sold and developed as part of urban renewal in the 1980s, no pre-construction archaeology was done and the approximately 300-foot area graveyard was dug up like any other dirt to turn the Acton neighborhood into City Gate Lane townhouses.
It wasn’t until builders sliced through two graves, exposing skeletons while trying to dig basements, that archaeologists from the Maryland Historical Trust were called.
Maryland Historical Trust’s lead archaeologist at the time, Wayne Clark, said by the time he was called to archive the two skeletons, all the other remains from the cemetery had been dug up and taken to a landfill to build the foundation of what is now townhouses on City Gate Lane.
Robert Worden remembers when the bones were found. He lives nearby in Murray Hill and included updates on the excavation and the bones in a 1983 neighborhood newsletter.
“There are burials in the backyards of people over there,” Worden said. “I tell them if you dig, you may find human bones. They don’t want to hear that.”
Former county archaeologist Al Luckenbach said he also responded to City Gate when the skeletons were found.
“Nobody was doing the right thing back then when they started this construction. I don’t think they knew they were cutting into a graveyard when they did the excavation,” Luckenbach said. “These people weren’t given the proper respect when this development occurred whether on purpose or accidental.”
Lewis Hyatt, 90, who co-owned the development company that bought the land from Annapolis for Urban Renewal, said he doesn’t remember anything about graves being dug up on the property. The other co-owner, Bowie Rose, is dead.
“I can’t tell you there wasn’t a possibility of human remains there,” Hyatt said.
Carl Snowden, convenor of the Caucus of African American Leaders and The Capital columnist, wasn’t surprised to hear about graves being dug up on Larkin Street. Finding a couple of skeletons and not knowing what happened to the rest embodied, he said, urban renewal’s purpose: erasing black people from downtown Annapolis.
“Urban renewal literally changed the landscape and complexion of that community,” Snowden said. “Not only did they not know, they didn’t care. There were graveyards disturbed throughout America in the name of gentrification and relocation.”
Urban renewal wasn’t just about turning slums into townhouses. Snowden, Hayes-Williams and historian Jane McWilliams recalled the project as poor residents being moved to public housing outside the center of the city, with no adequate public transportation to get back to downtown.
“There was a great disregard for African-American artifacts, burial grounds and buildings,” Snowden said. “To this day, to my knowledge, there was no consequence for that. No penalties. Nobody is required to come back and pay a penalty for it. It was all done in the name of gentrification or ‘progress.’”
Hayes-Williams called urban renewal a shame on Annapolis.
“People are going to their deathbed not telling everything that happened,” Hayes-Williams said. “This isn’t just the search for Smith Price. This is about Urban Renewal that hurt a city where people are still hurting.”
Former State Sen. Gerald Winegrad grew up in Acton in the 1940s and 1950s. He said seeing pictures of the area after redevelopment and hearing that poor residents were displaced shocked him.
“To name it City Gate Lane, to me, I’m surprised the black community puts up with it today,” Winegrad said. “I think it’s time to change the name back to Larkin Street.”
County Executive Steuart Pittman said getting the remains repatriated to Anne Arundel is the county’s first step in confronting the ugly parts of its past.
“The African American community was basically thrown out of that part of town to build nice new buildings. There are people alive today who still remember that experience,” Pittman said. “For all of the African-American community of Annapolis who still feel the sting of urban ‘removal,’ getting the remains of Smith Price back to Annapolis and buried is important.”
If descendants of the remains can be contacted, Pittman said they should decide what else to do in commemoration for their ancestors and the area.
“I think you’ll be hearing a lot more about this,” Pittman said. “We have to confront our history in this county and the city of Annapolis. This will be a big part of that.”
Hayes-Williams is confident the remains will get back to Anne Arundel.
“We’re going to bring him home,” Hayes-Williams said. “He’s been out of the ground for 40 years. It’s about the significance of bringing an African-American back home to the city. It’s about reverence. It’s about respect.”
A spokesman for the Maryland Historical Trust said the museum will only release the remains once ancestry has been traced. If Schablitsky can extract DNA, she plans to find ancestors and possibly use facial reconstruction technology on one of the skulls.
“Having human remains in museum collections is very dehumanizing . . . The overall goal is to give this person back their identity and humanity,” Schablitsky said.
“A lot of times human remains aren’t treated with the most dignity. What we’re going to be doing with Smith Price should be looked at as an example of how we should treat human remains going forward. They don’t belong in museums, they should be repatriated to their communities.”
Snowden said repatriation is just as important for those in Annapolis’ past as it is for those in its future. — (AP)
“It would serve to underscore the importance that graves are not to be disturbed,” he said. “History will repeat itself, as we all know.” — (AP)