Scout plans repairs for historic Salisbury cemetery

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Ben Smith is hoping for help from the community with his project to preserve and share the history of Salisbury’s sometimes misunderstood or little-known cemetery commonly referred to as Potter’s Field.

Already an enthusiastic 13-year-old working toward his Eagle Scout recognition, Smith has gotten some help, but more is needed. The city has approved his project, and the folks at Poplar Hill Mansion are assisting any way they can.

Some know the history, but for many who do not, they cannot know the history just by looking at the cemetery — there is no sign. Smith wants to remedy this. He also plans to repair remnants of the cemetery.

When visiting Poplar Hill Mansion as a project for a merit badge, Smith was told about the old Salisbury cemetery, often called Potter’s Field, where slaves of Poplar Hill Mansion were buried, as well as Civil War soldiers who died while encamped at Salisbury.

When Smith visited the cemetery, he was struck by the need for repairs and a sign to mark the history, and decided something needed to be done. He drew up a plan and now he seeks funding to complete it.

The plan is to get materials to repair and replace damaged plot railings and posts and for a commemorative sign. He will have assistance from other scouts and friends to do the work, but he is in need of donations to purchase the materials.

When asked how big the community project needs to be to fulfill the Eagle Scout requirement, Smith said projects can be small or large, but it’s not that simple.

The smallest project can make the biggest difference, and the biggest project can make the smallest difference, said Smith.

“But I don’t want to have the biggest project that makes the smallest difference, I want to have it right in the middle of the two, so it makes the biggest difference to the community.” He added he wants a sign “so everybody knows we have history here.”

The cemetery is old. In addition to unmarked graves of 52 Union soldiers, it was a community burial ground, segregated with African Americans buried at the cemetery’s eastern end.

White, black, enslaved, former-enslaved, and freedmen alike were buried here. The term Potter’s Field has been attributed to this community cemetery, but Salisbury’s public cemetery was not only the burial ground for the poor, the unknown, or those from other areas who died here.

It was also a place for burials of people with no church cemetery or sizable land for private family burials.

The late historian and surveyor Richard W. Cooper believed it may also have been an earlier Native American burial ground, for it was on high ground relative to the east tributary to the Wicomico River.

In the 1950s, construction of Route 50 through the town took roughly half of the property, turning the once rectangular cemetery into a triangular shape seen today. Careful attention was given to reburial of the displaced graves, which were re-interred in remaining areas of the cemetery, some identified, most unidentified. Few tombstones existed and survived.

Two prominent community members are buried there and their markers survive.  Levin and Esther (or Easter) Houston were free at the time of their burials. Levin, once a slave of Poplar Hill Mansion, gained his freedom, purchased the freedom of his wife and child, and contributed to the community as one of five freedmen who established the John Wesley Methodist Church, now the Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center. Their son, Solomon, also formerly a slave of Poplar Hill, is buried in the nearby Houston Cemetery on the other side of Commerce Street, a more recent cemetery.

Smith stood for photos in front of several marker. One of them, Ellenor Brewington (1812-1850), was the daughter of Charles Davis, a Salisbury blacksmith. Visitors are urged to take a look at the surviving markers at the Salisbury cemetery.

Said Aleta Davis, Chair of Friends of Poplar Hill Mansion, “Our Board is so proud of Ben for noticing that an historic cemetery that is very important to Poplar Hill was being neglected, and in need of some help,” noting that Poplar Hill will be managing the account for the repair.

“When Ben came to our Board meeting to talk about his plan, we immediately said, ‘Finally, this is fabulous! I am hoping that through Ben’s efforts, it will encourage others to not wait for someone else to take care of a problem, but to do so themselves, and for parents to get their children involved as well.”

Anyone wishing to donate funds or assistance can contact Poplar Hill Mansion at 410-749-1776 or curator@poplarhillmansion.org.

Contact Linda Duyer at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com.

 

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