The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A church that once enslaved people sees the light in a chapel cemetery

Volunteers and archeologists cleared brush from the woods, bringing sunlight to long-hidden stones that marked the graves of those who were enslaved

Descendants and student volunteers, including Dolores Bell Missouri, gather at the cemetery of a Catholic church on Jan. 16 to help clear brush from a site where graves were found in Bowie, Md. (Michael Robinson Chávez/The Washington Post)
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Kevin Porter stood on a steep slope Monday and marveled as his family history slowly emerged from a stubborn tangle of undergrowth and racism.

Yard by yard, volunteers and archaeologists were clearing brush and brambles from the woods around Sacred Heart Chapel in Bowie, Md., bringing sunlight to more and more of the long-hidden stones that marked the graves of Porter’s ancestors.

Porter’s forebears and hundreds of other enslaved people had once worked and worshiped at this Jesuit outpost near the Patuxent River, held in bondage by some of the priests and brothers who were building the Catholic church in the nascent United States. Their final resting places have long faded from view, subsumed by nature even as the adjacent cemetery for White parishioners was tidied and honored through the ages.

When recent research pinpointed the location of at least 200 concealed graves on the overgrown hillsides surrounding the chapel, some hailed the “discovery” of an African American cemetery. But for families of those buried, including some who have repeatedly beseeched the parish for information on their ancestors, there was nothing new about it.

“We’ve been telling them for a long time that there are probably graves going all the way down to the road,” said Porter, 42, who has studied the genealogy of the enslaved families and their descendants who populated the Jesuits’ White Marsh plantation here on a tributary of the Patuxent River.

While working to restore two historic Black cemeteries, she discovered a construction crew digging on burial grounds

Porter was bending over a just-uncovered stone, trying to make out the faint carving to see if it was one of the family names he has studied, the Queens, Campbells and Taylors.

Most of the gravestones are simple field rocks embedded upright in the soil. It will take close analysis — and maybe electronic imaging — to see if any retain traces of lettering. But a few yards away, volunteers were raking debris from the clearly carved stone of Monica A. Queen (1860 to 1889), Porter’s great-great-great-aunt.

Or maybe great-great-great-great. “I think it’s four generations,” he said. “I’ve been through so much material.”

For decades, the graves have existed in a parallel history tended mostly by their descendants and a few specialist historians. Now, as part of a burgeoning accounting of enslavement by Jesuit institutions, the cemetery has burst into the public glare.

In the fall, the parish had much of the area analyzed with ground-penetrating radar, which revealed the potential outlines of a significant burial site. Crews have cleared tons of dogged undergrowth from the pitched slopes between the 18th-century chapel and a new church built in 1962. On Monday, dozens of Catholic University of America students arrived to aid the effort in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, planting small flags at each revealed gravestone and other objects of potential interest.

“If you see something cool, don’t move it,” project leader Laura Masur called out as volunteers began putting on gloves and gathering rakes and saws. “Even an old bottle may have been left as a grave offering.”

Masur is a Catholic University archaeologist and a specialist in the cemeteries of enslaved people. She has recently been researching uncovered gravestones at the 17th-century St. Francis Xavier parish in Newtowne, Md. The Archdiocese of Washington, which now owns the White Marsh properties, asked her to help clear and map this cemetery and to work with descendants on plans to restore or curate the site.

A memorial seems likely, according to the descendants who have participated in early discussions. Widespread excavations do not. No matter how valuable the historical data that might be revealed, it wouldn’t be worth further desecrating graves that already have been shamefully neglected, Masur said.

At a historic cemetery for the enslaved, a mother’s personal grief mixes with collective mourning

“They never should have been allowed to become so overgrown,” she said. “Cemeteries are sacred places, and you have to have an exceptionally good reason to dig up a body.”

The flurry of activity is part of a wave of reckoning over slavery that took off when Georgetown University revealed in 2016 that its Jesuit founders had sold 272 enslaved people into forced labor in Louisiana in 1838. Eighty-nine of those people were taken from White Marsh, a 2,500-acre compound that had been bequeathed — along with 30 enslaved people — to the Society of Jesus by a member of Maryland’s Carroll dynasty more than a century earlier.

Georgetown, which was born of plans made by Jesuits at White Marsh, has pledged a range of initiatives to make amends to the descendants of those enslaved people, including admission to the university and reparation grants, although some activists have charged the school with dragging its feet.

For many descendants, the new attention to the Sacred Heart cemetery is as painful as it is overdue.

“Excuse me,” a man said to Masur as she was heading toward the work site. “My great-great-great-grandmother is buried here. Why is this happening now?”

Boyd Campbell, an Annapolis real estate broker, grew up and was confirmed in this parish, helping with Masses even when some White churchgoers wouldn’t put money in a collection plate carried by a Black attendant.

His father and seven siblings talked frequently about their ancestors resting somewhere on this land. They came multiple times to the chapel in search of information that would let them tend to these family graves as they did in other cemeteries.

“They always said there was nothing they could do, no documents, nothing,” Campbell said. “We tried and tried and nothing happened because of the color of our skin.”

On Monday, he looked at the TV crews interviewing young volunteers. “And now it’s a spectacle,” he said, his voice breaking. “I have very bittersweet feelings right now.”

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Masur said, “I want to personally apologize to you.” She asked him to please be involved in the mapping and preservation, in the planning for the future.

“He’s right to be mad,” she said later. “If we’re being blunt, it’s happening now because White people have decided it’s important. I’m glad it’s happening, but it makes me sad.”

She went back to work, helped by Porter and others who share names and heritage with those buried all around.

Just then, a saw screamed, a branch fell and a bit more light penetrated the gloom.