The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The bones of a former slave and black leader were missing — until a historian asked in the right place

Pallbearers place their hands on the casket of a small boy believed to be the son of Smith Price on Friday at St. Anne's Cemetery in Annapolis. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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Janice Hayes-Williams was just starting out as an amateur local historian two decades ago when she found out a prominent black man had been deeply disrespected.

The grave holding the remains of Smith Price, founder of the first free black community in Maryland’s state capital, had been dug up during an urban renewal project in the 1980s.

And for years, no one she talked to knew where the bones had gone.

“How do you dig up people and take them away?” Hayes-Williams said in an interview earlier this week.

On Friday, she stood in St. Anne’s Cemetery in Annapolis and ran her hand along a pair of custom wooden caskets. “At last,” she said, “they’re home.”

The bones presumed to belong to Price and his young son were again being laid to rest, after a solemn ceremony attended by 125 people in the church that Price helped found more than two centuries ago.

Price was eulogized by Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), the third African American in state history elected to that job, who spoke of “resilience in the face of conditions we really can’t understand today.”

Born into bondage in the 1750s, Price — whose father was white — spent most of his life as the property of the first president of the Maryland Senate, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, an Annapolis man who built some of his wealth participating in the slave trade. Price was such a talented blacksmith and artisan that Jenifer rented him out for hire.

Freed in 1791 after Jenifer’s death, Price leased land from white men, cultivated an orchard and prospered — enough to purchase and donate the land for what became Asbury United Methodist Church, which Hayes-Williams’s family has attended for generations.

He also bought freedom for other enslaved people, some of whom helped create a thriving free black community outside the Annapolis city gates six decades before Maryland abolished slavery.

Price died in 1807. He and a son both were buried behind the church he helped found. Their bodies presumably stayed in that small graveyard until the early 1980s, when the poor black residents who still lived in the neighborhood were displaced. The area was bulldozed to make way for townhouses they could not afford.

“We had told these developers there was a cemetery there, but I don’t think they took it to heart until they dug a basement and found the skeletons,” said Robert Worden, who lives in the neighboring community of Murray Hill and has written about the discovery of the remains.

It was actually Wayne Clark, then Maryland’s chief state archaeologist, who stumbled into finding them. He visited the construction site the day the graves were sliced in half during a basement excavation.

The skeletons were lodged in a dirt wall, close to coffin nails that appeared centuries old. He suspected other remains might have inadvertently been sent to a landfill with construction debris.

“I have a habit of checking construction sites around town,” Clark, 69, recalled in an interview this week. “I was shocked and upset that there was no archaeology done on this area.”

He pulled together an emergency team to salvage what he could and boxed up the bones to keep them safe. Then he did some research, learning about the graveyard where Smith Price and others had been interred. The bones were sent to storage.

“My intent in removing the remains was to save them from the disrespect they had been given,” Clark said. “There was no funding, and I did this on an emergency basis. We didn’t have any resources to do follow-up.”

After the bones were rediscovered, the Rev. Carletta Allen, pastor at Asbury United, asked longtime members why they did not object at the time to their being cast aside rather than reburied.

She said her parishioners answered: “Pastor, what were we supposed to say? We had no power. So they did what they did, and we watched.”

Hayes-Williams had just started researching African American history in Annapolis in the early 2000s when she learned about Price and his connection to her church.

She says she was disheartened by the disregard for his graveyard — and surprised to learn that post-revolutionary Annapolis had a thriving community of black people even as enslaved Africans were still being unloaded from ships in the Annapolis Harbor.

“This is my story, my people,” Hayes-Williams said. “I mean, these guys were leasing lands, running shops and taverns, buying their own people out of slavery. And nobody knows.”

She spent a lot of time trying to figure out where the bones had been taken. But the Internet was in its infancy back then, and so were her skills as a researcher. Over time, she let it go.

She became a well-known local history buff, working in local politics. Eventually, then-Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) designated her to serve on a few committees.

Four days after Busch died in April, Hayes-Williams drove to her final event as his representative — a commission meeting at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Calvert County, a multiuse state facility that also happens to house 8 million archaeological artifacts.

She can’t explain why she never looked for the missing bones there before. When she arrived that day, she blurted out a question. Do you have any bones from Annapolis?

“When they said, ‘We have the Smith Price graveyard,’ I almost passed out,” Hayes-Williams said “I hadn’t thought of him for a decade. At all.”

The rediscovery of the bones inside a small cardboard box, on a shelf beside an old cannon, set in motion a rush of wrangling to get them analyzed and turned over to the church for burial.

Hayes-Williams turned to Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), her current boss, for help, plus the city’s mayor and the office of Gov. Larry Hogan (R). She leveraged local contacts to find Price descendants willing to take a DNA test to positively identify the remains. The results are still pending.

A team led by state archaeologist Julie Schablitsky concluded that the bones seem to belong to a 6-year-old child and a man between 45 and 55 who had arthritis and a tooth worn down from a tobacco pipe. They used facial reconstruction techniques to create a portrait of the man they believe is probably Price, complete with a tobacco pipe sticking out of his mouth, the same way it would have as he walked the streets of Annapolis two centuries ago.

On Friday, the 155th anniversary of Maryland abolishing slavery, that portrait was on display in the church sanctuary. Nine dark-suited pallbearers flanked the caskets. Pittman recalled that his ancestors had owned slaves and noted that though the country had moved far forward, it still had far to go.

Schablitsky, who was also at the ceremony, marveled in an interview Thursday at the number of people drawn together for the project and to witness the bones again being laid to rest — even as many others remain in storage at the museum.

“This child and this man brought an entire community together to remember who they are,” Schablitsky said, “and hopefully remind them of who they could be.”

Correction: Earlier versions of this article misstated the number of African Americans who have been elected lieutenant governor in Maryland. Three have been elected.

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