Sunday, December 28, 2008

BALTIMORE | The Mount Auburn Cemetery - thought to be the city’s oldest cemetery open to black residents - was until recently overrun with honeysuckle vines, brambles and small trees.

But today, a crew of inmates using hand tools has cleared enough underbrush that headstones are now visible, and the first step toward restoration is under way.

The cemetery is owned by the Sharp Street United Methodist Church, but the congregation could not afford to pay a landscaper to do the clearing work, said the Rev. Dellyne Hinton.

She also said older members at a recent service thanked the men “who are doing the work … their hands and knees won’t let them do anymore.”

The inmates, who are in pre-release programs, also appear to have found a spiritual connection to the work.

“I never thought it would be looking so good,” Devin Smith, 27, said of the cemetery in southeast Baltimore, which borders the Cherry Hill neighborhood in which he was raised.

Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the state’s Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the agency has increased the number of public-service work projects that are staffed with inmate crews. Such projects include planting trees, building playing fields and cleaning up neighborhoods.

The projects are part of the “restorative justice” model, in which inmates invest in the community that they have harmed, he said.

Over three months, the crew has cleared about eight of the cemetery’s 34 acres. The inmates cannot use machines to clear the dense overgrowth because of sunken ground and irregularly placed headstones.

The Sharp Street Church bought the cemetery in 1871, which became known as “the City of the Dead for Colored People.”

“This was the only place within the city lines we were allowed to be buried in,” Mrs. Hinton said.

More than 48,000 are buried there. Notable names in Baltimore black history include Dr. Louise Young, the city’s first black female doctor, and Joseph Gans, a lightweight boxing champion. The site was added in 2001 to the National Register of Historic Places.

Mr. Maynard said the project also helps residents overcome stereotypes about those with criminal records.

“They may for the first time see inmates as human beings, not just as people who are incarcerated,” he said.

During a recent visit, four crew members used saplings they cut down as levers to roll a pile of brush up a hill.

Marcus Lambert, 30, said cutting through thorns was tough work and that everyone at some point contracted poison ivy.

“That’s when you knew you were part of the crew,” he said.

Lambert also said he felt proud that the inmates where thanked by residents and church members, including some who brought homemade meals or sodas on hot days.

“They treated us like we were part of the congregation,” he said.

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