Two teenaged Girl Scouts rediscovered an Ellicott City cemetery where formerly enslaved people are buried

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Apr. 10—By Mary Carole McCauley —

PUBLISHED:April 10, 2024 at 7:00 a.m.| UPDATED:April 12, 2024 at 11:52 a.m.

Two 13-year-old Girl Scouts who set out during the early days of the pandemic to earn a merit badge rediscovered a historic Ellicott City cemetery where formerly enslaved people are buried, a cemetery once used by descendants of Charles Carroll, the final signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Sarah Hill and Nadia Klemensten, now both 18 and seniors at Marriott's Ridge High School, didn't think of themselves as budding archeologists or amateur sleuths. They didn't plan to claim a place in Maryland history by drawing attention to the long-neglected St. Mary's Cemetery, a segregated burial ground that served as the final resting place for 160 Americans — 84 Black, and 76 white. They had no idea they would help a neighbor find the gravesite of his formerly enslaved great, great, great grandmother.

Allen Greene, 70, a deacon at St. Paul's Catholic Church, said he was "overwhelmed with joy" when the teens helped him locate the tombstone memorializing his ancestor Caroline Addison, who died in 1894 after a lifetime working as a nurse at nearby Doughoregan Manor, the Carroll family estate.

"I was saddened that such a sacred place was in decay," Greene said. "But, I did feel a deep connection to a part of my personal history and the journey of my family from slavery. It was a pretty moving experience."

He said that Hill and Klemensten "were two of the key individuals involved in uncovering a cemetery that had lain dormant for a number of years" and added: "They deserve a heck of a lot of credit."

Ellicott City's Cemetery Project comes at a moment when attention nationwide and in Maryland is being focused on a movement to protect Black cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair or are threatened with demolition.

Last year, Congress passed the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act of 2023, which authorizes the National Park Service to identify, research and preserve abandoned Black burial grounds. However the fledgling program has remained dormant because of a lack of funds.

In January, the Maryland Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit seeking to prevent the sale of an apartment complex and parking lot built on Bethesda's Moses Macedonia African Cemetery. A ruling is expected later this year.

The Scouts' rediscovery of St. Mary's sparked a revitalization project being spearheaded by Kelly Palich, an archeologist for Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks. The restoration will include cleaning up the property and locating buried gravesites, and Palich estimates the project will take five years. She envisions paths, maps, directional signs and historic markers, perhaps flowers.

"Cemeteries are often the only tangible remains of the people buried there," Palich said, adding that few official documents remain of formerly enslaved people and other groups marginalized during their lifetimes.

"Those records don't exist," she said. "But their descendants are still around, and cemeteries are a place for them to come and remember their ancestors."

It's not entirely accurate to say that no one knew about St. Mary's before Hill and Klementsen began their awareness-raising campaign. But that knowledge was confined to a handful of genealogists and elderly residents with long memories — and even they were unclear about such critical details as to who owned the 3.2-acre plot tucked behind houses and out of view in a residential neighborhood, and who was responsible for maintaining it.

"I live in Turf Valley and I had no idea that the cemetery existed," Klementsen said. "This is something that directly affects my community."

Palich didn't know that Howard County-owned St. Mary's until the Scouts presented her with the deeds.

"This revitalization wouldn't have happened without them, because I wouldn't have known this cemetery was there," she said. "I sing Sarah's and Nadia's praises every chance I get."

The teens became involved in the fall of 2020 after Hill's mother, Tracy Hill, attended a presentation by the Howard County Genealogical Society. Someone began talking about the cemetery and its woeful state of disrepair and suggested that the Boy Scouts be recruited to clean it up.

Tracy Hill remembers thinking, "Girls can do that, too."

She mentioned the idea to her daughter and her friend, Klementsen, who were then in the eighth grade and searching for a project for their Girl Scouts silver merit badge, which requires 50 hours of community service. The girls asked James Kuttler, who was in charge of cemeteries for the genealogical society, to show them the site.

"It was horrid," Sarah Hill said.

"There was trash everywhere. We found alcohol bottles. The gravestones were completely covered with brush and debris. It had become a place for teenagers to drink and knock over headstones. We couldn't even walk through it, and we were both 13-year-old kids who loved to play in the woods."

The girls began photographing the site and what graves they could find. They researched deeds to identify who owned the cemetery and read old newspaper archives.

They learned that between 1886 and 1933, the cemetery served as a burial ground for formerly enslaved Black people and white, primarily Irish laborers from three nearby Catholic parishes: St. Mary's, which is the name of the chapel attached to Doughoregan Manor, St. Paul's and St. Louis's. Only 51 graves were marked, or less than one-third.

In 1986, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which had owned the cemetery for about a century, sold it for $10,000 to a developer who planned to build two houses on the site, Palich said.

The developer was granted a building permit by Howard County. In the summer of 1992, he began to lay the concrete foundation and to dig trenches for water and sewer lines — until the earth-moving equipment uncovered the remains of three men and two women. At least three and probably all five of the disturbed corpses were of Black people, Palich said.

As a result of the ensuing uproar, the corpse fragments were reinterred during a ceremony attended by the Archdiocese, the NAACP and residents. Howard County traded the developer two tracts of undeveloped land in another part of the county in exchange for the cemetery. A coalition of community residents formed a group called the Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society. The society, which had fought the development, agreed to maintain the cemetery for perpetuity.

But it's difficult to enforce an agreement that depends entirely on volunteer labor.

"Some people died," Palich said, "and others moved away."

Over the decades, nature began to cover the traces of the tombstones. Nearly everyone forgot St. Mary's existed — until the two Scouts made a presentation to the genealogical society in December 2020 and then reached out to Palich.

"I think it was the first time that a room full of adults listened to what I had to say," Sarah Hill said.

In November 2021, the county Recreation & Parks department removed dead trees and enough underbrush for Palich and her team to begin pinpointing the locations of underground gravesites with ground-penetrating radar and specially trained "cadaver dogs."

Klementsen organized about 30 Scouts in three daylong cleanup sessions that exposed more tombstones and removed small mountains of debris. Hill is building a website for the cemetery and is hand-mapping graves with the goal of creating a chart for future visitors. Greene is attempting to revive the Friends group, which he hopes will establish a nonprofit that can raise money to defray renovation expenses.

And Palich is looking for descendants of people interred at St. Mary's. She is asking anyone who thinks they might be related to someone buried there to contact her via email at or by calling 410-313-0423.

"Cemeteries are sacred ground," Greene said.

"Why should St. Mary's Cemetery be any different from the other well-established, well-groomed cemeteries around the county? Why would we not want that for our ancestors?"

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