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Headstones Speak to Diversity in Boston Cemetery

After a long career as a college librarian, Sylvia A. McDowell is still doing research. Only this time she has traded a book-lined library filled with students for a tranquil, park-like resting place of the dead.

Since last spring, McDowell, 74, has been a scholar-in-residence at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston. Established in 1848, the cemetery, like many of the city’s older burial grounds, is where some historic figures—like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, poets Anne Sexton and e.e. cummings, and playwright Eugene O’Neill—are laid to rest.

McDowell’s research, funded by a $3,000 grant from the state humanities council, is uncovering the names and life stories of forgotten African Americans buried in a cemetery that never segregated the dead or identified them by race in its records. Her project, “Finding Voices in the Silence,” will produce a list of blacks buried in Forest Hills and a trail connecting the graves of African American notables. The meticulous process of crosschecking headstone inscriptions with other records has already revealed bits of local history that had been lost.

“You have people who disappeared from the record, but they appear in the cemetery record,” says Pleum Bouricius, a program officer for Mass Humanities, the state council. “You can learn all sorts of things from those stones. The cemetery is also wanting to delve into its own sociology.”

The famous and the unknown

It has long been known that William Cooper Nell, an abolitionist who worked with Garrison, is interred at Forest Hills.

“I think he’s our most famous” African American, McDowell says. “I [also] found John J. Smith, who was a true abolitionist working back in the 1800s with Garrison and those guys.”

She has discovered others related to Boston natives who have gained national prominence in more recent times, such as the parents of disco singer Donna Summer and the mother of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Others are strictly local figures—a cofounder of the local NAACP a century ago, a Republican activist from the early 1900s, and the operator of a black-owned credit union.

“It’s really wonderful. People have been giving me great feedback, the names of people who are buried here or people I should just remember in black history,” McDowell says. “I will collect maybe a thousand names in this process. I have about 500 now.” A form to nominate people to research is on the website of the Forest Hills Educational Trust.

A passion for research

Immersed as she is in local history, McDowell was not born in Boston. She moved there from Washington, D.C., to attend Simmons College, where she received a master’s in library science. She worked as a librarian for 23 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a couple of years at Middlesex Community College and a dozen more at Harvard University before retiring in 2003.

At Harvard, she was a librarian at the Schlesinger Library, now part of the university’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

“That’s where I did my work doing this kind of investigative study,” she says. “I was used to dealing with primary materials.”

She details the printed sources she uses: state records on vital statistics, a local index of obituaries, a private library’s list of black residents in the 1800s, the African American Biographical Database and the cemetery’s own card file. The research requires hours in the Boston Public Library or Harvard’s libraries.

Keepers of history

About once a week McDowell makes the short trip from her home to Forest Hills. There she uses a method that relies on her half-century as an active member of the local black community.

“There are some areas of the cemetery I just walked and noted the names I recognized,” she says. On Oct. 18, she’ll give a slide-show tour of one of those areas, featuring 12 to 20 graves.

That part of the cemetery is called the Garden of Peace. Other spots in the rolling landscape are Lake Hibiscus and Snowflake Hill. Those

names are clues that Forest Hills is not your ordinary cemetery.

It has, for instance, the Forest Hills Educational Trust, which sponsors art exhibits, tours and McDowell’s research. Cecily Miller, the trust’s executive director, says the cemetery was conceived as a park and a memorial garden with monuments to figures like the abolitionists, writers, industrialists and philanthropists buried there. She describes McDowell’s project as flowing from that original mission.

Even so, the idea of having a scholar-in-residence at a cemetery seems unusual. McDowell is not the first in Massachusetts, though. Mount Auburn Cemetery, which was designed in 1831 by the same person who laid out Forest Hills, did similar research about African Americans and created a self-guided tour in 2003. Bree Harvey, director of education and visitor services at the Cambridge, Mass., cemetery, says she completed the project without outside funding.

And three years ago Mass Humanities awarded a grant for an archaeologist to identify those buried in a crypt beneath the historic Old North Church, where the sexton signaled the approach of British warships as the American Revolution began.

McDowell is already feeling the press of time to wrap up her research by December, when her grant runs out. Her eyes scan the names on a printout of her spreadsheet with birth and death dates, grave locations and additional biographical notes for a few.

“I’m hoping someday somebody will take this basic data and flesh it out,” she says.

Kenneth J. Cooper is a Boston-based writer.

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