Salisbury graveyard contains history and mysteries

Eddie Dean, kneeling, and his team of volunteers. are cleaning up neglected cemeteries, for free. Those helping to get the Houston Cemetery in Salisbury in shape, are, from left, Adison Stanley and his mother, Emily, Forrest Laird, Wallace Moore, and Sara Logan and her daughter, Rachel.

A team of volunteers has hit the ground running in an effort to clean up a special cemetery between Route 50 East and Salisbury City Park along Commerce Street.

It is the Houston Cemetery, an all-African American graveyard that is one of the city’s oldest, dating to 1901.

Salisbury businessman Eddie Dean is leading the charge to find buried tombstones and to remove brush, debris and small trees from the city landmark.

This is the third graveyard cleanup project Dean and his Dorchester County Cemetery Preservation Organization team have tackled. And it’s all free.

Lavaughn Price said he’s appreciative of  the work done by the volunteers.

“Years ago our American Legion Post 145, saw a need to keep this cemetery up so we formed the Houston Cemetery Committee to maintain it, keep the grass cut. We put the concrete pad and flag pole stands out here so we could have special ceremonies on Memorial Day and Veterans Day,” he said. “Jimmy Jolly was our commander then and supported our project when we started in the mid-1990s.”

“After the older members passed on, the younger members didn’t want to keep this going. But for the last couple of years, (former Salisbury City Councilwoman) Shanie Shields would intercede to get the prisoners from Poplar Hill to come out here and cut the grass.”

“Now Eddy Dean has pitched in and we really appreciate his help,” Price said. “Praise God.”

He was surprised when Dean and his crew of volunteers discovered tombstones “back in the woods.” “I don’t think we ever knew they were there.”

Years ago, Price said, a group of men, most of whom were members of the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church (now known as The Chipman Foundation Center) established the Houston Cemetery around 1901.

Post Commander Elwood Wyatt said he’s grateful to Dean and his crew for the work they are doing.

“Leo Cherry brought men out here to straighten up the tombstones, put up the flagpole,” Price explained.

“I remember when people used to paint the tombstones to keep them looking clean and like marble,” said Leo Cherry Sr.

It’s a small world; Dean once worked with Cherry at Con Diesel in Salisbury more than 35 years ago.

Now, the men said, they are too old to handle maintenance, and welcome the volunteers.

Post members said they welcome the helping hand.

Volunteer Forrest Laird of Cambridge said helping gives him the opportunity “to get fresh air and sunshine,” and to support a good cause.

Forrest Laird, left, and fellow volunteer Wallace Moore, right, join Eddie Dean in cleaning up Houston Cemetery in Salisbury.

“I just can’t bear seeing old cemeteries overgrown and no one doing anything to help clean it up. The guys who were doing this are getting too old and needed someone to help them out. That’s why I’m here. Just tryin’ to do my part.”

For Sara Logan, and daughter Rachel of Delmar, cleaning up the cemetery offers her an opportunity to express honor and respect for those buried here. “We are also giving access to the tombstones and graves for family members who can’t do this work by themselves,” she said. “My mother ‘encouraged’ me to come, but I’m enjoying it,” Rachael said with laughter.

Emily Stanley, and her son, Adison, 14, of Secretary, in Dorchester County, were also clipping and pulling away underbrush.

“These is our second time volunteering with Dean,” she said. “The first time ‘mom volunteered’ Adison, but he found he really liked doing this, and I love it, too.”

Dean takes on each project with the zeal of Gen. George S. Patton, and hits the ground running. His truck pulls a trailer loaded with an arsenal of weed, grass and tree tools. He’s a man on a mission.

As owner and operator of Right Hand Man Services, Dean has the experience and know-how to get the job done. That’s good news for Post Commander Elwood Wyatt and Post members, because Dean is now maintaining the Houston Cemetery, cutting the grass weekly, and for free.

An older African American cemetery on the north side of Commerce Street (formerly Cemetery Street) from the Houston site was in use about the time of the Civil War, if not earlier. In the 1877 Atlases and Other Early Maps of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it was identified simply as “Salisbury Cemetery” with the eastern section segregated as the  “Colored Cemetery.” Though technically part of the cemetery, it was unquestionably a segregated section, allowing only Black burials.

This site, with a number of tombstones, is just behind the Arby’s restaurant along Route 50 East. It is part of Potter’s Field, also known as the Salisbury City Cemetery.

Confusion over sites

These separate cemeteries, divided by Commerce Street, leads to perpetual confusion. 

According to Linda Duyer, Assistant Director of the Julia A. Purnell Museum in Snow Hill, is a noted researcher on black history who has done extensive research into the histories of Potter’s Field and the Houston Cemetery, Houston is “the misunderstood cemetery.”

That, she wrote in her online publication, “The Delmarva Chronicle,” is because folks have assumed the two sites, Houston Cemetery and the Salisbury Cemetery (or Potter’s Field)  are one and the same. Even the late historian and attorney, John Jacob, who produced a book on noting names and dates on thousands of tombstones in Wicomico County, mistakenly lumped them together as “The Houston Cemetery.” 

Left to right, Lavaughn Price, American Legion Post 145 Commander Elwood Wyatt, Emory Morris and Leo Cherry Sr. all worked with others for decades to maintain Houston Cemetery.

More confusing is the location of what may be an even older, larger graveyard from the early 1800s that may have  begun as a family cemetery, and became the Salisbury City Cemetery.

Duyer’s extensive research also revealed that Potter’s Field was officially renamed Salisbury Cemetery in December 1947. 

A contest was held to elicit new names, and the winner was Mrs. Irma B. Tighman, who got the idea from a 1841 deed conveying title of the property.

Duyer has traced the detailed histories of the two cemeteries in her book, “‘Round the Pond, Georgetown of Salisbury, Maryland.” 

While the Potter’s Field cemetery (also called Salisbury Cemetery) across Commerce Street from the Houston site isn’t in need of extensive maintenance work, Dean has been busy at the site, trying to understand just where the graves are now of the 700-plus remains that were moved to make way for Route 50 when construction began in the late 1950s.

“A company from South Carolina was hired to remove the graves,” Dean said. “And the estimate was 150 remains would be found. It turned out to be 700-plus.”

The final count was 767 unknown graves.

Each set of remains, Duyer discovered in a July 1959 Salisbury Times story, were placed in “specially made wooden boxes 18-by-36 inches, painted gray, and marked with a metal plate.”

Civil War troops

Traffic hums by the cemetery that borders the highway. Except for a cluster of tombstones (now on the eastern section of the lot designated as the “Colored Cemetery” in the 1877 Atlas) there are few above ground markers for remains, reinterred or otherwise.

With persistence, Dean discovered metal markers below the grass and under a few inches of soil.

One reads, “Unidentified Old Salisbury Cemetery grave # 191, reinterred July 1959.”

Dean has now found 60 markers.

Working on a hunch, Dean was able to find the precise location of the graves, all neatly in a row at an accurately measured distance one from another.

One of 60 markers found just below the grass in Potters Field or Salisbury Cemetery reads: “Unidentified (remains) Old Salisbury Cemetery, Grave # 191, Reinterred July 1959.” More than 700 unidentified remains were removed from a section of the Salisbury Cemetery to make way for construction of Route 50 in 1959.

As for the tombstones on the east end of the lot (which includes the stone of Levin Huston, one of the John Wesley Church founders), Dean believes they are the tombstones that were removed from the path of construction and reset.

A small, designated family plot might have originally been there, but the others, he suspects, were probably moved.

“The tombstones just look too straight and I think they were all reset at the same time, except for a few in a ‘fenced in’ family plot.” 

Yet there is one big mystery Dean really wants to solve. Somewhere in the western section of the Salisbury Cemetery lot are said to be the graves of 50-plus Civil War Union troops.

The troops were part of the military force, believed to have numbered 600 men, stationed at Camp Upton, the center of which became the site of Upton High School and later The Daily Times building along Carroll Street.

Richard Cooper, the late Salisbury author and historian, wrote that the troops were killed by “black measles” (or typhoid) and may have been buried in a mass grave.

The late Salisbury City Councilman David Grier led efforts to get the council to authorize the excavation of the Civil War burial site.

Grier, also a member of the Civil War Roundtable and Wicomico County Historical Society, told the council that the excavation would hopefully reveal “buttons, belt buckles or other ornaments to identify the states or units” of the soldiers, according to an article in The Daily Times of Dec. 15, 1964. 

It had been rumored that Civil War artifacts were found during a public works project in the area earlier in 1964. As for the approved excavation, it is not known if it was undertaken.

For decades, most of the Salisbury Cemetery or Potter’s field was overgrown. 

Duyer discovered that, in1926, the graveyard was so overgrown that a small bootlegging still was found in the undergrowth.

In November 1950, retired Maj. Gen. Amos W.W. Woodcock told the City Council: “The most historical spot in Salisbury is probably the most neglected.”

It was reported that only an area 90-by-70 feet of the cemetery that measured 900-by-170 feet was maintained. 

Woodcock, then president of the historical society,  wanted the cemetery routinely maintained and a bronze tablet placed at the site. Members of American Legion Post No. 64 had “erected a marble cross in the cemetery” which trucks had knocked over on several occasions.

Unlike the Houston graveyard, the Salisbury Cemetery site is owned by the city.

Just how the story of about 52 Union soldiers being buried there began is a mystery. 

In 1947, a story in The Daily Times, about Potter’s Field, noted, “Services for Civil War Veterans buried there are held each year on Memorial Day.” It says nothing about honoring the dead there of World War I. 

An ad in the newspaper of 1947 also indicated that  Memorial Day “Exercises” would be held at 11 a.m. at Parsons Cemetery at Potters Field, following a parade at 10 a.m., where Civil War soldiers are buried. 

This suggests there was a longstanding tradition of honoring those referred to as local “veterans,” not unknown Union soldiers who were in active service at the time they were killed by a disease.

Two groups buried?

So it appears there may be at least two groups of Civil War soldiers buried in Potter’s Field, one for local men who served and a section for unidentified men buried in a mass grave.

Dean finds the tantalizing hints about the whereabouts of  the now lost Civil War soldiers an intriguing mystery that needs to be solved.

That may be a mystery for another history detective to investigate. 

“There’s been enough confusion with these two cemeteries and it looks like there still is,” he said, laughing. 

Dean and his crew just finished sprucing up Houston Cemetery and just  finished cleaning up the Richardson family graveyard near Church Creek this past Saturday.

Now he and his team of 20 volunteers are working at the famed Anchor of Hope, or Travers Family Cemetery. The extensive cemetery is located in lower Dorchester County, and along the southwestern section of the county fronting the Chesapeake Bay.

For years, nearby resident Donnie Willey has put years of his life, and tens of thousands of dollars of his own money in an effort to halt erosion and rescue vaults heading for the Bay.

It has made national news in the past as the bay is eroding the shore, resulting in tombstones and cement vaults, with caskets inside, being lapped by waves on the shoreline.

The Travers Family Cemetery cleanup is expected to take two months, with volunteers working every Saturday.

Folks wanting to help may contact Dean for hours and directions by calling 410-513-1357 or through the organization’s email at dccpo2@gmail.com.

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