In 1872 Baltimore’s historic Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church purchased land in Southwest Baltimore to establish a place for Black families to bury their dead. Today it is called Mount Auburn Cemetery. Covering approximately 32 acres, it was originally named “The City of the Dead for Colored People.” It is the oldest Black cemetery in Baltimore. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated a historic landmark by Baltimore City. Mount Auburn has the interred remains of over 55,000 people, including community leaders, formerly enslaved people, and Black Civil War veterans. It is owned and operated by the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church.
Its many famous occupants are too numerous to list here, but a few stand out. For example, there lie the remains of the boxer Joe Gans (1874-1910), the first African-American to win a world boxing championship and a lightweight boxing title. He is considered by many to be the greatest lightweight boxer of the 20th century. He was also the inspiration for an early short story by Ernest Hemingway called “A Matter of Color.”
John Henry Murphy (1840-1922) is also buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery. He was born into slavery in Baltimore and became free at the age of 24. After fighting in the Union Army in the Civil War, Murphy became active in education for African-American children. In 1892 he founded the Afro-American newspaper, which became the largest Black newspaper on the East Coast by the time of his death in 1922. In 2022, the Baltimore Afro-American is still published weekly. It is the longest running family-owned African-American newspaper in the United States.
Also interred at Mount Auburn is Lillie May Carroll Jackson (1889-1975), who is known as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1930s she ran multiple grassroots campaigns to end racial segregation, boycott racist businesses, register Black voters, equalize pay between Black and white teachers, and to pass Baltimore’s Fair Employment Practices law. She headed the Baltimore NAACP Chapter from 1935 to 1970.
Over the 150 years of its existence, the cemetery has often fallen into disrepair and has been the scene of gruesome situations. In 1918, 175 Black victims of the Spanish Flu epidemic lay unburied on its grounds for weeks as the usual laborers refused to bury them. The Mayor had to call in soldiers from Camp Meade to bury the bodies using army trucks and trenching machines. In 1930, the Afro-American reported that grave diggers working on the site accidentally unearthed skulls, bones, and caskets of the dead. Although it remained a popular burial ground, it has in recent decades again become dilapidated.
The cost of maintaining the graveyard is $25,000 a year. In 2012, Mount Auburn was cleaned up and rededicated by the State of Maryland with funding from the Abell Foundation, and with much of the work done by 40 state prison inmates. In recent years the “Resurrecting Mount Auburn Cemetery” project has documented the names of 55,000 buried there and continues to work on identifying gravesites.
The research and writing of this article was funded by two grants: one from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and one from the Baltimore National Heritage Area.