To Secretary Hitchcock; to Reverend Douglas Sands, to Reverend Dell Hinton, and to the Sharp Street community; to Judge Bell; to Mayor Rawlings-Blake; to everyone with the Abell Foundation, without whose generosity and civic spirit we would not be here today; to Bishop Schol; to President Wilson; and to Gary Maynard, the staff of the Maryland Department of Corrections, and the inmates who have worked very hard to restore this cemetery:
I thank you. It's an honor to be with you, my fellow citizens.
In big ways and in small ways, the story of Mt. Auburn Cemetery is a metaphor for the recovery of the truest and most noble story of our own City of Baltimore.
Maya Angelou writes that "there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
That's what we had behind us; untold stories behind the thorns of all those countless acres of sticker bushes.
I remember like yesterday, riding with Joan Carter Conway by 35 acres of overgrown and unmaintained weeds and brush. "What is this?" I asked her. "That's the oldest black cemetery in Baltimore, believe it or not, there are thousands of tombstones underneath all those acres of sticker bushes" she told me.
There are also buried here black soldiers and black citizens who fought in the Defense of Baltimore; whose hands stitched together the colors of the Star Spangled Banner.
This cemetery is the resting place of Dr. Carl Murphy, one of the leading voices of the civil rights movement;
It is the resting place of Lilli Mae Carroll Jackson, "Fearless Lil," who led the Baltimore NAACP for thirty five years, and whose great grandson Keiffer Mitchell is here with us today.
It is the resting place of "Baby" Joe Gans, America's first African-American light, heavyweight boxing champion;
It is the resting place of William Ashbie Hawkins, the first African-American to run for United States Senate in the State of Maryland;
It is the resting place of John Henry Murphy, the founder of the Afro American Newspaper;
It is the resting place of James Dougherty and Mary Minis, grandparents of our own Jeanne Hitchcock.
Mt. Auburn cemetery is the resting place of generations of Baltimore's African-American history -- but until now, many of its stories have been covered and hidden by debris and weeds and trash. Surely, a people united by our belief in the dignity of every individual can do better than what we had been able to do here -- before now.
Mt. Auburn's Re-Birth
Elijah Cummings has talked about the idea of being "blinded by what we see." For too many years, we'd look at these 35 acres -- and all we'd see were the overgrown sticker bushes and the weeds. We were in deed, blinded by what we'd seen.
So often in those days, we'd come together as a community -- I remember those spring cleanups and those fall cleanups -- and we did a little bit to try to clear away the debris, an acre at a time -- and the rains would come and wash away our progress; the weeds would grow back up. God loves even the partial victories, but God loves it when we're actually able to recover the entire thing.
Today we can celebrate real and potentially lasting progress that together we've been able to make.
Gary Maynard dispatched inmates to work on this cleanup. When the Abbell Foundation stepped up with the resources, we began to make seven-days-a-week progress for eight months.
Recently, I was in Baltimore and Jeanne Hitchock told me, "make sure, when you're on your way back from Baltimore today, you take a few minutes to see what's been recovered." When I came here, my eyes filled with tears of joy. It felt like thousands of ancestors were applauding at what you've been able to do in recovering this place.
The Sharp Street Church, for your part -- you have embraced the inmates, taking them into the fold, and helping them assimilate into the community after their reentry.
This Church and its congregation are a national treasure -- and have been since your founding in 1787 as the first African American Methodist congregation in Baltimore City, a great church, founded on the belief in human dignity and the fact that we're all in this together.
In 1868 the congregation established this burial ground, which for years would be the only cemetery in Baltimore City where African Americans could be buried in dignity.
I'll leave you with the words of a great American poet:
"There's a graveyard hid down below
Where at night the dead come to life,..
Well above the stars they crackle and fire,
And this is the song they sing:
"We are alive.
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark,
Our spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To stand shoulder to shoulder
And heart to heart'."
So, "Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friends,
It's only our bodies that betray us in the end."
May we always take actions that inspire our children and grandchildren and keep faith with our ancestors.