Libertytown — On a steep hillside up the street from an auto repair shop, a group of McDaniel College students are piecing together long-forgotten lives.
The students pull back brambles, trim branches and press flour into tombstones carved a century or more ago. They are trying to uncover the details of the lives of some of the early African American residents of this small Frederick County town.
“They were forgotten, but we’re bringing their names back,” said junior Emoff Amofa, 21, who is taking professor Rick Smith’s January session class on tracing family histories.
Among those buried on this hillside are Alfred B. Roberts, a sergeant who fought with the United States Colored Infantry in the Civil War; Ellen Mayberry, who died in 1885 “in hope of a glorious resurrection”; and little Margaret E. Stanton, who was just 3 when she died in 1886.
For the next three weeks, the students will try to document the lives of inhabitants of John Wesley Church cemetery, many of whom were buried in the decades after the Civil War. The church to which they belonged was shuttered long ago and the tiny one-room schoolhouse has been turned into a private home.
Smith teaches chemistry during fall and spring semesters, but spends the January and summer terms passing on his other preoccupations — genealogy and African American history. He writes a local history column for a paper in Chincoteague, Va., where he and his wife spend their summers, and compiles genealogical information on Frederick’s early African American families at his Web site, frederickroots.com.
He recently transcribed and published hundreds of pages of documents relating to slavery in the county, which could help descendants of slaves figure out when their ancestors were born, to whom they were related, and when and how they obtained freedom.
Smith says he digs into genealogical research with the same zeal he employs to study drugs to fight cancer and AIDS, relishing untangling family roots complicated by a lack of legal records.
“I really enjoy solving the problems of tracing family lines,” he said. “You answer one question and come up with two more.”
While the lives of white Marylanders tend to be fairly well documented, few records were maintained for both enslaved and free African Americans, since they had few legal rights.
Guy Djoken, president of the Frederick County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that while other historians have worked on reconstructing the history of African Americans in the county, much work remains.
“It’s very hard to have a sense of yourself if you don’t know where you’re coming from,” Djoken said. “Some people didn’t want us to know who we are, to know our history.”
The 14 students enrolled in Smith’s class are tracing their own family trees using census documents and other records, but their main focus is reconstructing the long-buried lives of the denizens of this small cemetery. The information they compile will be posted on Smith’s Web site.
Jamaal Barnes, a junior political science major, had already found census records for some of those buried in the cemetery more recently, and noted that they had only attended school through seventh or eighth grade and that many of the men had served in World War I and World War II.
“Basically, they were denied an education,” said Barnes, a 20-year-old from Baltimore. “And our generation takes education for granted.”
On an unusually warm day this week, students fanned through the cemetery, seeking graves and markings they might have missed on their initial visit the previous day.
“We found more, Dr. Smith,” students called as they pulled clumps of soil and moss from the base of one grave. Beneath the words, “In memory of Theodore Clay,” additional words and numbers grew visible. The students dusted the stone with flour, revealing that Clay had died in 1975.
Nearby, junior Aminata Lashley, 20, was bubbling over the discovery of the grave of Lillian F. Rose, who was born in 1904 and died in 1946.
Lashley, who is majoring in biology and Spanish, thinks the grave might belong to the wife of a man whom she had been assigned to research. Census records show that he was married to a woman named Lillian who was also born in 1904.
“In the census, women are hard to find because they lose their maiden names,” said Lashley, who discovered she had a knack for finding tombstones when she took a similar summer class from Smith last year.
In that class, part of the college’s “Common Ground on the Hill” program, students examined another nearby African American cemetery. Smith says there are about 20 in the county, most of which have not been formally studied until now.
Students call to Smith and he hurries over to a dirt-streaked tombstone lying on the ground. Amofa and his roommate, junior Zach Watkins — a biochemistry major who has collaborated with Smith to research chemical compounds in wine — help lift and prop up the stone.
The students sift flour over it and white letters appear: “Amelia A. Roberts. Died July 3, 1920, age 30 years, 3 months, 10 days. Gone but not forgotten.”