By SELENE SAN FELICE The Capital
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) – Janice HayesWilliams spoke sweetly to the bones as she wrapped them up.
“All right, precious little one. You’re coming back to Annapolis,” she said to the preteen skeleton.
The Annapolis historian wrapped the gray, shoebox-sized museum archive container and another one three times its size – the bones of a 50-year-old man – in African Kente cloth.
With the help of Rebecca Morehouse, curator of state collections at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, she bound the boxes with leather rope and adorned them with artificial wildflowers.
For almost 30 years, these bones have sat in the archives of the Jefferson Patterson Park museum in Calvert County after they were dug up during an urban renewal project that built townhouses in Annapolis.
Hayes-Williams suspects they belong to Smith Price, a freed slave who founded the first African-American church in Anne Arundel County in 1803 – that would become Asbury United Methodist Church.
On July 24, Hayes-Williams brought them back to Annapolis for a ceremony at the church before passing them on for DNA testing to Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland State Highway Administration.
After 40 years of wondering, HayesWilliams believes she saw what she feared: the life of one of the most influential African Americans in Annapolis history reduced to a box of bones in a museum.
“It’s hard today,” she said. “I took all yesterday to cry.”
The boxes were placed on a cart and wheeled through the museum lab, past a cannon and a giant X-ray machine.
While these are some of the only sets of bones to ever make it out of the museum for a proper burial, they’re not the only human remains archived the among the 9 million artifacts at the lab.
“Ancient remains,” meaning anything from skeletons to just one bone, are archived when they’re dug up if they can’t be linked to a particular gravesite.
So for Morehouse and lab director Patricia Samford, seeing the opportunity to have these bones identified and laid to rest is emotional as well.
“I consider it a sacred responsibility to care for the human remains in our custody, so it’s an honor to be part of the ceremony today,” Morehouse said.
HOME TO ANNAPOLIS
“So, they’re home,” Hayes-Williams said to the congregation spread out in the Asbury church benches and the TV news camera operators in the aisles.
She told the congregation of the history of Smith Price.
How he was a freed slave, born of a slave mother and white planter father. How his wife, Ann Shorter, came from Nova Scotia to Maryland seeking religious freedom as a Catholic following Charles Carroll only to end up enslaved to Price’s owner.
And about the seven black men who worked with Price to build the first black church in Anne Arundel, represented by just six at the ceremony by Vince Leggett, Adetola Ajayi, Bishop Craig Coats, Tony Spencer, retired police Sgt. James Spearman and newly elected Alderman Dajuan Gay.
Alderwoman Elly Tierney and County Executive Steuart Pittman also came to pay their respects. Hayes-Williams works in the Pittman administration on history-related projects.
Between prayers, the Rev. Carletta Allen told the congregation this isn’t the first time she’s seen a situation like this.
WHAT HAPPENED WAS WRONG
While at a church in Cooksville that was about to break ground on a new building, Allen said, the State Highway Administration told her it “might uncover some bones.
“Because someone decided to build a facility on that property knowing it was a burial ground.”
Whether the bones returned to Annapolis belong to Smith Price and his family, Allen told the congregation to honor.
“They are precious – not were, are – precious souls,” Allen said.
“We are doing what we do today because whoever they are, they matter. What happened to them was wrong, and by your virtue of being here today, you acknowledge that, that it was wrong.”
Allen gave Schablitsky her blessing before passing the bones on to her.
“She will explore, she will listen, she will report the truth,” Allen told the crowd, “and then we will have one more journey for these folks.”
On Nov. 1, the bones will return to Annapolis to be interred at St. Anne’s cemetery, Hayes-Williams announced.
Crofton resident Jeffrey Shelton happened to be walking around West Street when he saw cameramen outside the church and decided to wander in for the services. Learning about Smith Price and the bones was awe inspiring, he said.
“It goes to show you things are found for a reason,” Shelton said. “God doesn’t allow them to be pushed aside.”