Nobody remembers who gave the order, decades ago, to topple the tombstones and build playground equipment over the graves of as many as 1,500 Frederick residents.
Even the precise date of the unceremonious bulldozing of Laboring Sons Cemetery has been lost to history, and complete records of the people buried there have never turned up.
But for Jackie Berry, who believes her great-great-uncle lies beneath what in 1949 became a Frederick city park, the fact that the 150-year-old African American cemetery's existence has been rediscovered, and will be memorialized, is some cause for relief.
"It will help bring some of the respect that these people deserve," said Berry, 55, a lifelong Frederick resident, referring to those buried beneath the park. "It helps, somewhat. But you can't forget the past."
On Wednesday, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, city leaders will dedicate a memorial to the Laboring Sons Cemetery, which was razed in the 1950s to make way for swing sets, slides and basketball courts.
The graveyard was renamed Chapel Alley Park and, like all but one of the city's parks at that time, the playground was designated "whites only."
No trace remained of the park's past. Then, in 1999, a woman living nearby began looking into rumors about its history and discovered that hundreds of people -- perhaps as many as 1,500 -- were buried there.
The revelation set off a heated debate about the city's, and the nation's, history of racial bigotry.
"It really touched a nerve," Berry said. "I was just appalled that [the city] would do something like that. . . . It brought back old memories of the way it used to be in Frederick in the '50s for African Americans."
In response to the uproar, city officials in 2000 pledged to build a memorial at the site, but the project languished for more than a year as the administration of Mayor James S. Grimes (R) was beset by other controversies. When Jennifer P. Dougherty (D) became mayor in January 2001, she pledged to make the memorial a priority.
On Wednesday, Dougherty and other city leaders will speak at the dedication of a plaque carrying the names of 161 people believed to be buried in the park. A stone memorial will be set at the park's center. Later this year, city crews will construct crushed-gravel walkways and two stone archways at the northern and southern ends of the rectangular park. The city will spend $80,000 on the construction, Dougherty said.
The playground equipment was removed from the park in October 2000. Since then, the mostly treeless land, about the size of a city block, has been vacant, sometimes littered with beer bottles and crushed cans.
In recent weeks, construction crews have set out surveying stakes indicating where the walkways will be built. About a dozen trees will be planted.
"It was a mistake to have it as a playground, and we're proud to rededicate it now," Dougherty said. "It was a promise from the city to the descendants, and to the neighbors, and it is a promise kept."
The cemetery was established in 1851 by a group called the Beneficial Society of the Laboring Sons of Frederick, a group of free black men. By the 1940s, the group's membership had dwindled, and the cemetery had fallen into disrepair.
According to city records, the group in the 1940s asked the city to take over the property. In 1949, the city agreed to do so and pledged to create a memorial park on the cemetery grounds.
The memorial park was never built. In 1950, according to city records, the mayor and Board of Aldermen passed a resolution to buy playground equipment for the site.
Bernard Brown, a member of the committee that helped draw up plans for the memorial, said he has found no record of any protest over the city's failure to build the memorial.
"It's concerning that people would let this happen without any dissent at all," said Brown, 72, president of the Fairview Cemetery Association, which runs an African American cemetery near Frederick. "I don't know why nobody did -- or maybe they did, but we haven't been able to find anything to indicate they protested."
Records on the cemetery, and the city's actions, have proved difficult to track down. Newspaper accounts from 1949, when the city took over the property, indicate that about 1,500 people were buried there. But city workers recorded only about 160 names from tombstones before the playground equipment was installed.
It appears that city workers did not move any of the bodies, and there is no evidence that any remains were discarded. Newspaper accounts from the time report that city workmen "struck a few skeletons a few feet beneath the ground surface."
But because no burial records from the Beneficial Society of the Laboring Sons have been found, it is nearly impossible to know how many bodies are under the park.
Berry believes her great-great-uncle Zachariah Daley was buried at Laboring Sons; she has his death certificate, from 1922 and, because the cemetery was where most blacks in Frederick were buried at the time, it is likely that Daley's remains are there.
The 160 names recorded by the city in 1949 will be inscribed on one of two bronze plaques at the memorial.
"In Honor of Those Who Rest at This Place," reads the heading above the names. Beneath the names, the plaque reads, "And Those Who Remain Unnamed."
The second plaque lists the names of current city officials and the committee that helped draw up the plans.
The second plaque also contains a brief summary of the cemetery's history. No mention is made of the razing of the park -- an omission that divided committee members, some of whom felt that the city's destruction of the graveyard should be recorded.
"I was a little upset, but I didn't say anything, that they would not give a little bit about the history of how [the cemetery] was covered up," Berry said.
Others said they are satisfied and would prefer to let the past rest. Committee member William O. Lee, a former city alderman, said the "committee felt that it wasn't necessary to go back over old stuff."
"We're just glad [the memorial] is being done," said Lee, 74. "We didn't find it necessary to rehash what happened 48, 50 years ago. What's important is what's happening now."