Pleasant Rest Cemetery, access limits, and the power of community

Picture of cemetery I visited today

Recently, as I was walking around Towson, me and my dad stumbled upon an unmarked cemetery. I took a few pictures and examined a few headstones. I wasn’t there to examine anything, but just explore. I did the same at a cemetery in Cape Cod and have gone to a bunch of cemeteries in the course of my genealogy research. But this was different. I had a suspicion it was a Black cemetery because one of the stones for a 64-year-old man named John E. Forman read as follows, who I’ll focus on later:

John E. Foreman who died on the 11th August 1909 in the 64th year of his age. He was a Trustee and Class Leader of the Zion African Methodist Church, Govanstown, of which his Father was one of the founders. He was an upright, industrious and…[cut off by grass]

After taking a couple other pictures, I went on my way, later posting them on Instagram. Once I got back home, I did some digging and found the name of the cemetery: Pleasant Rest Cemetery. As it turned out, the cemetery was a historic Black cemetery owned by Mt. Olive Baptist Church as noted in the Baltimore Sun in September 2011. Apart from learning how the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County has set aside money to help preserve the cemetery (I’m not sure how much), the cemetery is still active with a burial there in September of last year. I also learned that the grandfather of Adelaide Bentley, President of the North East Towson Improvement Association, born in 1928, co-founded “the Mount Olive Baptist Church at the corner of York Road and Bosley Avenue” as the Baltimore Sun reported in February 2019. Not long after, the Mount Calvary African Methodist Episcopal Church was built, with the first stones laid in 1855. The church is specifically located on the corner of York Rd. and Bosley Ave. in Towson, with “a white steeple and a unique & stain glass window facing the road” as MapQuest describes it. I put together this article in hopes of submitting a description of the cemetery to Find A Grave as I suggested on Twitter. I learned a lot more than about the cemetery however.

Getting back to John E. Foreman. Who was this man, anyway? We know that the Zion African Methodist Church in Govanstown could have been a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church, a historically Black Protestant denomination based in New York City, officially officially recognized in 1821 and also known as the Freedom Church. It is not the same as the AME Church as some have pointed out. If correct, this church would be part of the Mid-Atlantic Episcopal District. I did some searching and found a mention of church in Govanstown in the 1874 Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church for the Years 1773-1881. Other books seemed to mention the church as well. After some searching, I came across a 1898 obituary of a man which appeared to be John E. Forman’s father, named William Waters Foreman, born in Govanstown, Md., October 12, 1821. This man was the son of Isaac Foreman, a local preacher of the Church. He was twice married, first to Miss Ruth Ann Weeks, of Baltimore, Md., November 12, 1843, and second to Mrs. Annie C. Molock, September 29, 1892.

Unfortunately, this obituary doesn’t list his children and I don’t know whether it was the correct person. We know that John E. Forman was born, approximately, in 1845 going by his age listed on his tombstone. Doing some searching, I found a John Forman living in Baltimore City in 1860, although it is not the same person. There is also one John Henry Foreman born in Prince George’s Parish in 1845, but I can’t confirm it is the same person. When I tried to search for ANYTHING on the 1900 census on FamilySearch, specifically to examine an entry for John Forman, I got this message:

This is a disgusting limitation on access. I remember when you used to be able to examine the 1900 census on FamilySearch. That’s no longer allowed unless you have special access. Why? This should be condemned without question. I also can’t access it on Ancestry unless I have a subscription. You can look through the ones added to the NARA catalog, but the entries for the 1900 census for Maryland have not been added yet. In any case, I continued onward.

Frustrated with this, I searched on some library databases and didn’t find much. Only some scattered articles, including one which lists a W.W. Foreman as a person being appointed for Buckeystown, Maryland in 1894. [1] Recommendations to help me fulfill this story are welcome.

Since that went nowhere, I decided to search for the church and cemetery. When it came to Mt. Olive Baptist Church, I found stories talking about its activities like entertaining the Relief Association of Baltimore County in 1926 and 1927 [2], how the Colored Baptist Convention was held there in 1911 [3], and the church hosted a bazaar in 1915. [4] There were a lot of false drops because of the number of churches also named “Mt. Olive Baptist Church” in other parts of the country. There are likely other stories there, but I’m not in the mood to weed through a bunch of sources right now. But, the door is open for others to expand this story. Undoubtedly, Louis Diggs writes about it in his book, Since the Beginning: African-American Communities in Towson, but more stories can still be told.

Searches for “Pleasant Rest Cemetery” were more successful. There were obituaries [5] and such, but most interesting was a 1921 article talking about the Timonium-Towson Trolley. [6] Here’s what it noted:

Shake hands with the only trolley car in Maryland that has a smokestack and coal scuttle, and travels a route that goes down hill both ways! ‘Tis the Timonium-Towson trolley. If  you think you can’t shake hands with her get in and take a ride, and you will not only shake hands but head, shoulders and teeth as well, particular in the neighborhood of the Pleasant Rest Cemetery, where departed members of the Mount Olive Baptist Church (colored) lie buried not far
from the track…But she stops anywhere. You can get right at your front door and now and then she goes around and stops at back doors. Of course she only stops at her regular stations, but they are plentiful enough; you wouldn’t want to stop in the middle of the woos or at the Pleasant Rest Cemetery, and those are about the only places where there aren’t any station.

That article was funny, but also revealing. I then came across an obituary in 1932 which revealed hat 73-year-old Alexander Frazier helped found and erect the Mt. Olive Baptist Church, seemingly with a man named James Williams. [7] What Rev. Avery Penn of the Mount Olive Baptist Church said, being tired of the county conducting negative actions that could affect his congregation, does give a bit of the background of the struggles the church has faced over the years:

In 1985 the county told us that we needed to move the church, move the church that had been there since 1888…To comply with the county, we tore it down, turned it around and moved back in. Guess what they told us. That is was going to be a gateway and it had to be something that would be pretty…We would walk out of the church, carry the body up to the cemetery on green ground. Baltimore County came along and decided that they would cut off the cemetery. They brought Bosley Avenue down across there, cut off what was Kenilworth and cut us off from the cemetery. They took the house — the church’s parsonage — you know where it was? It was right where Bosley Avenue is, right beside the church. The put it on telephone poles and they rolled it around behind the church, and that’s where it is today, that duplex house. Baltimore County did that. They built a fire house over there. They went where we walked up to the cemetery and they built a police station. And they told me I had to tear down the church and build something nice and I did it. Twenty six years later Baltimore County wants to take all my effort with the pretty church and come to the other side of the road and put a gas station.

This really shows the importance of the church to this community and its continuing value to this day. This is likely why White people have targeted the church in the past, not only by burning crosses outside the church but the vandalism of the church with White supremacist symbols in 2016. [8]

As a 1990s article about the church noted, it stands as a symbol of “the vibrant black community of Sandy Bottom that founded it and disappeared under the wheels of the commercial encroachment that has re-created Towson,” with much of the property which composed Sandy Bottom was “originally bought and settled by the families of freed slaves and eventually sold to white real estate agents and developers.” I personally stand with this church as it defends itself from encroachment by various forces, whether White developers, the County government, or anyone else.


Notes

[1] Special Dispatch to the,Baltimore Sun. “COLORED METHODISTS.: CLOSING SESSION–ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE APPOINTMENTS FOR 1894.” The Sun (1837-1994), Mar 13, 1894, pp. 6. ProQuest.

[2] “Towson, Md.” Afro-American (1893-1988), Nov 19, 1927, pp. 14. ProQuest; “TOWSON, MD.” Afro-American (1893-1988), May 29, 1926, pp. 12. ProQuest.

[3] “Maryland Baptist State Convention.” Afro-American (1893-1988), Jun 17, 1911, pp. 4. ProQuest.

[4] Special to The Afro-American Ledger. “Throughout the State of Maryland: LONG GREEN HAPPENINGS.” Afro-American (1893-1988), Apr 03, 1915, pp. 3. ProQuest.

[5] “DONALDSON, BARBARA A.: [FINAL EDITION].” The Sun, Jun 15, 2006, pp. 1. ProQuest; “JOHNSON, MADELON B.” The Sun, Mar 05, 2008. ProQuest; “BARGER, CHARLES.” The Sun, Sep 02, 2007. ProQuest; “JENKINS, SR., JAMES T.: [FINAL EDITION].” The Sun, Apr 02, 2006, pp. 1. ProQuest; “Mrs. Shurn.” Afro-American (1893-1988), Mar 12, 1966, pp. 18. ProQuest; “MRS. PINDER.” Afro-American (1893-1988), May 26, 1928, pp. 18. ProQuest. This is only a sampling of the obituaries listed for this cemetery on ProQuest.

[6] “Maryland’s Unique Trolley Car Runs Down Hill either Way: Voyage Over TimoniumTowson Route A Lesson to the Uninitiated “COASTING” SAVES BATTERIES’ “JUICE” One-Man Crew Becomes Expert in Conserving His Electricity.” The Sun (1837-1994), Dec 18, 1921, pp. 12. ProQuest.

[7] “AGED TOWSON MAN BURIED SUNDAY.” Afro-American (1893-1988), Feb 06, 1932, pp. 19. ProQuest. The church is also, apparently, mentioned within Neal A. Brooks and Eric G. Rockel‘s A History of Baltimore County, along other books.

[8] “2 from Towson Named in July Cross Burnings.” The Sun (1837-1994), Aug 26, 1980, pp. 1. ProQuest.