“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.