Monument City Blog

Branches of Baltimore History

Laurel Cemetery and the Belair Shopping Center

with one comment

Moving a cemetery is a difficult thing for any development company to do. Especially moving a 19th Century burial ground where the caskets have deteriorated and the headstones are non-existent or unreadable. But apparently developing neighborhoods need shopping centers more than old cemeteries.

While researching Charm City’s former reservoir system I noticed a graveyard near Clifton Park that isn’t there today. The city’s 1905 land records clearly show a Laurel Cemetery on the lot now occupied by the Belair Shopping Center. Laurel Cemetery was founded in 1852 and was the first non-sectarian funerary grounds in Baltimore for blacks. Numerous important figures were interred there including members of the local church and Civil War veterans.


The site made perfect sense. It was on a hill, just outside the North Avenue city boundary, that had been used for decades as a burial ground for the free and slave servants of local landowners. Before long, Laurel Hill became the premiere cemetery for blacks in the area.


The Rev. Daniel A. Payne, a senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a frequent visitor to Abraham Lincoln’s White House, was buried there in 1893. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, eulogized the bishop at the cemetery. The seventh bishop of the A.M.E church, Alexander Wayman, who had spoken at Bishop Payne’s funeral, was himself buried at Laurel in 1895.

As the years passed Laurel became overgrown and neglected, its administrators eventually unable to afford regular maintenance. In 1958 the city stepped in to purchase the land, and just four years later a company by the name of Two Guys built a store and parking lot, forever sealing the historic parcel. In her journal, Agnes Callum, an Enoch Pratt librarian, published her assessment of the land takeover.


Laurel was already more than 100 years old when a band of city law officials and real estate operators formed a corporation to buy the cemetery for themselves in 1958.

With the help of legislation initiated by Marvin Mandel, then leader of the city delegation to Annapolis and later governor, the corporation acquired title to the cemetery. They bought the prime site on Belair Road for $100 in an audacious and complex land-acquisition coup.

After buying the land for basically nothing the city turned around and valued the boneyard at close to a quarter million dollars. When they sold the land an undertaker was hired to exhume and move the bodies to a new site located in Carroll County. The question is whether or not they actually moved them. Of the estimated five to seven thousand people buried at Laurel only eight to twelve bodies were removed intact. These remains along with two to three hundred small boxes filled with anonymous bones and skulls were taken to Carroll County. The rest were paved over.


For many years after the cemetery’s removal, human bones would occasionally be found protruding from the hill behind the department store. The bones ended up as souvenirs in the collections of local citizens.

Written by monumentcity

December 4th, 2010 at 3:37 pm