Laurel Cemetery was incorporated in 1852 as Baltimore’s first nondenominational cemetery for African Americans. The location chosen was Belle Air Avenue (now Belair Road), on a hill long used as a burial ground for free and enslaved servants of local landowners. Laurel quickly became a popular place of burial for people across Black Baltimore’s socioeconomic spectrum, including the graves of 230 Black Civil War veterans, members of the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.). After its creation, Laurel Cemetery was known as one of the most beautiful and prominent African American cemeteries in the city, with at least 5,000, but perhaps closer to 10,000 burials occurring at this site during the years of its formal incorporation.
Serving as the commemorative center for the African American community in the late 1800’s, annual parades and Memorial Day gatherings to honor and decorate the graves of the Black Civil War veterans occurred regularly at Laurel Cemetery, which was also the resting place of many prominent members of Baltimore’s African American population. Historical records show that in 1894, Frederick Douglass traveled to Laurel Cemetery to speak on the occasion of the unveiling of a monument honoring Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, who served as the sixth Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopalian (A.M.E.) church, and was a founder and former president of Wilberforce University.
The decline of Laurel Cemetery started in the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1911, the remains of the Civil War veterans were removed and reinterred at Loudon Park National Cemetery to accommodate the expansion of Belair Road. In 1920, Elmley Avenue was created and row houses were built along the newly constructed street on the southern boundary of the Cemetery. In 1930, a portion of the grounds were sold for the construction of a gas station, and the offices of the Laurel Cemetery Company were moved offsite. This highly contested sale drove a wedge between the private owners of the cemetery and the deed holding descendants of the interred.
By the 1930s the site had become overgrown and garbage-strewn, and the owners of the cemetery failed to uphold their duties in maintaining the property. In May of 1948, members of the Belair Edison Improvement Association called for the demolition of Laurel Cemetery, which declared bankruptcy in 1952. Legislation passed in 1957 by Maryland Lawmakers provided the legal justification for the sole shareholder of the now defunct Laurel Cemetery Company to sell the land to the McKamer Realty Company for $100 in 1958.
Although the McKamer Realty Company was founded for the express purpose of purchasing the cemetery by two employees of the Baltimore Law Department, an internal review by the Mayor’s office found no evidence for a conflict of interest and the sale went through, netting thousands of dollars in profits for the owners upon selling the rezoned property. A series of lawsuits seeking justice for the disenfranchised descendants failed to prevail in the courts and thus, after being in existence for 106 years, Laurel Cemetery was leveled. Some the remains of those buried at Laurel were sent to cemeteries in Arbutus in Baltimore County and an estimated 350 remains were reburied at the new Laurel Cemetery in Carroll County. Unfortunately, this new site has also not been maintained.
In February of 1962, the former site of Laurel Cemetery became the new location of Two Guys Department Store. Today it is the site of the Belair-Edison Crossing Shopping Center, and home to several businesses. The Shopping Center is a heavily traveled and highly valued local establishment – most recently sold to a Florida based-business in 2014. However, many current patrons and nearby residents have no knowledge of the site’s former purpose and significance.