Say Their Names: Meeting Memories at Crownsville Cemetery

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County residents read names of Crownsville patients buried in unmarked graves at Crownsville Cemetery. Photo: Scott MacMullan

By Brenda Wintrode

On Saturday morning, a small group of people gathered at the Say My Name ceremony at the 12-acre Crownsville Patient Cemetery on the grounds of the former Crownsville Hospital to remember the names of the patients buried there. All but one are African American. Local historian and unofficial steward of the cemetery, Janice Hayes-Williams, has invited the public to attend this event for the past 12 years during the Scenic Rivers Land Trust’s Walk in the Woods event. 

A tall, wooden cross stood sentinel over the flat gravestones, the majority of which were engraved with only a four-digit number. Hayes-Williams spoke a few words about the patients’ circumstances and said a prayer. Anne Arundel County actor, singer and historical interpreter Scotti Preston, sang a song she wrote herself called “Say My Name.” During the refrain, Preston strolled around the circle of attendees, and with a purposeful pause, cued each participant to read aloud a name of one of the buried. Attendees then walked along the rows of cement blocks that served as grave markers, dropping red and white flower petals.

Hayes-Williams and a team of volunteers scoured through the databases at the Maryland State Archives to find the names of the patients buried in the cemetery. Specifically, they looked for a notation on each death certificate in Anne Arundel County beginning in 1911. The volunteers recorded just under 1,600 death certificates that noted burial on the grounds of the hospital. Hayes-Williams supposed that family members could either not afford to bury their dead or long ago disassociated from the patient because of the stigma of mental illness. “They were forgotten, but they’re not anymore,” said Hayes-Williams.

A grave marker at Crownsville Cemetery. Many grave markers are unmarked stones. Photo: Brenda Wintrode

The hospital was built in 1910 as a “Hospital for the Negro Insane.” “African Americans were brought here out of the almshouses and the jails. Then when they decided to bring the criminally insane here, the criminally insane patients built their own hospital,” said Hayes-Williams, who has extensively researched the history of the property. The hospital has a dark and sordid history of abusive practices, experimenting on its patients with electroshock therapy, drug testing, and supplying unclaimed cadavers to the University of Maryland for research. “The hospital would do their own autopsies and experiments here. Some of these [grave] spaces might not even be a whole body. There could be body parts that were removed during an autopsy,” said Hayes-Williams. The gathering was especially important this year, said Hayes-Williams, as Oprah Winfrey’s film about Henrietta Lacks, the woman with immortal cells used for decades in medical research, premiered on HBO Saturday as well. Henrietta’s daughter was sent to Crownsville, brutally experimented upon by doctors, and died there in 1955. 

According to Hayes-Williams, the property is still owned by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and sits within an Anne Arundel County conservation easement. She is confident that, for now, the land is protected despite the proposed Bayhawks stadium and off ramp access being located near the cemetery. “When I found out about this land, that’s when I joined the Scenic Rivers Land Trust to make sure my cemetery would be okay,” said Hayes-Williams, “I want to make sure people never forget.”

Brenda Wintrode is a freelance writer from Anne Arundel County.

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