Tucked away in an obscure corner of Halfway, outside of Hagerstown, an overgrown half-acre is all that remains of what was once a sprawling burial ground for Hagerstown’s African American community. Most of the “Halfway Colored Cemetery,” as it was known in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lies under the surrounding houses and gardens. A few surviving gravestones can be seen in people’s yards, and half a dozen still stand in the small preserve of the cemetery.
In the course of several years’ research, I’ve found the names of nearly a hundred people buried at Halfway. The earliest of them is Jesse Guynn, who was buried in 1844 from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hagerstown, where he and his family were members. The cemetery surely pre-dated his burial, though. Its origins are unknown so far; the land passed through various (white) hands during the nineteenth century, as burials continued. Then, in 1897, a black fraternal order in Hagerstown, the Independent Order of the Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria, purchased the existing Halfway Colored Cemetery and surrounding land, a total of seven acres, and officially incorporated the cemetery.
The Good Samaritans were mostly members of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church (also known as Bethel) in Hagerstown, whose cemetery on Bethel Street was full and had been closed in 1893. The Halfway Cemetery became the replacement for the old Bethel burial ground, which was no longer in use. In 1899, some of the bodies from Bethel Street were actually moved to Halfway. In the early twentieth century, many African Americans in Hagerstown chose to have their loved ones buried at Rose Hill Cemetery, in town, but many continued the older tradition of burial at Halfway. (There were also other burial sites for blacks throughout the county.) Not only Ebenezer, but also Asbury and other black churches in Hagerstown, buried members at Halfway.
At least seven Civil War veterans are interred at Halfway: William Bell, Benjamin Brooks, Henry W. Dorsey, John W. Dorsey, Oliver Hicks, James C. House, and Perry Moxley. Perry Moxley was one of the Good Samaritans, a trustee of Ebenezer Church, and famously a member of Moxley’s Band, the Hagerstown musical group that enlisted together in 1863 to form the First Brigade Band of the United States Colored Troops. His wife Sarah and son Perry are also buried here. Halfway is also the resting place of World War I veteran Irwin Sullivan, whose story I’ve told in another blog post.
The Halfway African American Cemetery helps tell the story of Hagerstown’s free black population before the Civil War, through Reconstruction, and well into the twentieth century. For example, Bernard Nelson Simms, buried here in 1903, had worked for fifteen years as a Pullman car porter. Pullman porters held a prestigious position in the African American community and were important in black history, forming the first all-black union and helping build the black middle class.
The last known burials at Halfway were in 1932, though the cemetery may well have continued in use after that. Records from the 1930s show that the cemetery then had about approximately fifty gravestones and an estimated 355 unmarked graves. In the 1950s, most of the cemetery was sold off to a developer, and houses were built on the land. Only a small piece, less than an acre, was preserved as cemetery. It is completely overgrown and is not accessible or easily visible from any street.
Cleanup: Efforts are currently underway to clean up and preserve the remaining part of the cemetery. On a cleanup day in early March 2020, more than forty volunteers cleared underbrush and fallen trees. Antietam Tree generously donated labor and the use of a chipper, and archaeologists from Hood College guided some of the work. Local Scouts and the Antietam Chapter of the DAR were also major contributors. Before the cleanup, only four gravestones remained in the cemetery proper; volunteers found several more during the cleanup, including those of Perry Moxley and his son. COVID-19 has temporarily derailed our plans to continue working on cleanup and restoration, but in time we hope the cemetery will become a park-like setting that can be visited and enjoyed, and a fitting memorial to Hagerstown’s historic African American community.
Location: The cemetery was formerly located immediately behind the newer Jewish cemetery (known as the Hebrew Cemetery or the B’nai Abraham Cemetery) on Virginia Avenue in Halfway, just southwest of Hagerstown. The Jewish and African-American cemeteries may have been adjacent to each other. However, the Jewish cemetery is still visible from the street and is still tended. The remaining portion of the Halfway African-American Cemetery does not touch the Jewish cemetery. The remaining portion of the African-American cemetery is located in a residential block bounded by Lincolnshire Road, Clinton Avenue, Rosewood Avenue, and Gay Street. It does not touch any street. There is access through several of the nearby yards with permission.
Contacts: For access to the cemetery site, or to talk about plans to preserve the cemetery, please contact Elizabeth Paul, firstname.lastname@example.org. To talk about the history of the cemetery and people buried there, please contact me, Emilie Amt, via the form below.
(Please be warned that there is false information online at Find-a-Grave, linking the Halfway Cemetery to the family of Harriet Tubman; this information is not true.)
Don Brown Cemetery Files, Western Maryland Room, Washington County Free Library, Hagerstown, MD.
Hagerstown newspapers, 1890s-1930s.
Samuel W. Piper, Washington County, Maryland, Cemetery Records (Westminster, MD: Family Line Publications, 1992-94), vol. VI.