WESTMINSTER – Seeing the Ellsworth Cemetery – a place of historic racial significance in Carroll County – in such a state of disarray did not sit well with Thomas Greul. He saw a wrong that needed to be righted, and got to work.
Greul is a member of the Knights of Columbus Council 9127 based at St. Bartholomew Parish in Manchester. Assisted by Dan Kloss, Owen C. Scaggs III and other Knights from St. John in Westminster and St. Joseph in Sykesville, they are maintaining the cemetery and ensuring it remains a respectable last resting place.
“The grass there was about four feet high and it was just really in bad shape,” Greul said when describing his first view of the cemetery at the start of the restoration project in 2013. “Later that week I took my tractor there and tried to mow the lawn but there were so many broken stones there that got in the way. The grass was so high I couldn’t even see them.”
The Ellsworth Cemetery, perched atop a hill behind a Wawa convenience store, has a rich history in Carroll County. Founded Dec. 21, 1876, by six Black Union Army veterans – Reuben Walker, David Ireland, William Adams, Lewis Dorsey, William Massey and Samuel Bowens – the cemetery was created on the eastern approach into Westminster out of necessity, as Black residents were not permitted to be buried within the city limits.
The years, unfortunately, have not been kind to the hallowed grounds, as a lack of regular maintenance, typical wear and tear, and acts of vandalism have resulted in many headstones being either shattered or eroded, and in need of repair.
Greul said his team anticipated about 30-40 unmarked graves. They were astounded to find 182, a number that may in fact grow.
One section of the cemetery is referred to as “Stranger’s Row,” and contains graves of unknown people who likely cannot be identified at this point. Of the confirmed unmarked graves, 26 are veterans, according to Greul, who noted these were veterans who fought in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, and the Korean War.
A stone with the words “Stranger’s Row” and iron crosses mark a portion of the Ellsworth Cemetery in Westminster which contain unidentified remains. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)
Though it has been difficult, Greul said they’ve managed to track down the majority of the names of people buried at the cemetery and their plots. They have placed American flags at the confirmed locations of veterans.
As the Knights began toiling away at restoring the cemetery, others began to assist. Scaggs said in an email that they have received donations from various Knights councils in the county. Companies including Home Depot, Lowe’s, Wawa, and Kohl’s donated money and manpower to help as well, he said.
The donations have assisted greatly with the maintenance and improvements made to the cemetery. It’s also having the encouraging effect of attracting visitors.
“We’re seeing fresh flowers at the graves now,” Greul said. “We’re seeing solar lights being left around the headstones. People are coming and visiting the cemetery now that it’s not under four feet of grass. It warms your heart to see people coming back to the cemetery and visiting their family. To undo the wrong that was there and bring it back and make it right again feels good.”
The presence of veterans at the cemetery certainly strengthened Greul’s resolve to help restore it; he was determined to give the final resting place of its founders and those who also served their country its due respect.
“Having a lot of military in my family and knowing the sacrifices they make, here are 26 people who said ‘I will stand up and fight for the United States of America,’ when they were hated by the South and by a lot of people, and knowing when they would go into battle they would probably be aimed at first,” Greul said.
“To let their names and bravery disappear wasn’t right. Through all the crap they went through, with not even being able to be buried in the city, I just couldn’t let it happen. So every time I can identify another veteran, it makes me feel good that I can put that piece of history for that brave man back there for generations to come.”
Father Michael Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew, said that the work of the Knights involved “not just sweat equity, but good ideas.”
“The grounds were derelict; they’re beautiful now,” said Father Roach, who noted the involvement of Union Memorial Baptist Church in Westminster, the Black congregation that formerly cared for the grounds. “We’re so fortunate that we came upon this opportunity. It’s a subtle reconciliation for Carroll County. Every time we’re gathered there, it heartens our hope for the future, and not just healing the past.”