Janice Hayes-Williams was just starting out as an amateur local historian two decades ago when she found out a prominent black man had been deeply disrespected.
The grave holding the remains of Smith Price, founder of the first free black community in Maryland’s state capital, had been dug up during an urban renewal project in the 1980s.
And for years, no one she talked to knew where the bones had gone.
“How do you dig up people and take them away?” Hayes-Williams said in an interview earlier this week.
On Friday, she stood in St. Anne’s Cemetery in Annapolis and ran her hand along a pair of custom wooden caskets. “At last,” she said, “they’re home.”
The bones presumed to belong to Price and his young son were again being laid to rest, after a solemn ceremony attended by 125 people in the church that Price helped found more than two centuries ago.
Price was eulogized by Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R), the third African American in state history elected to that job, who spoke of “resilience in the face of conditions we really can’t understand today.”
Pallbearers look over the caskets believed to contain the bones of Smith Price and his son. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Born into bondage in the 1750s, Price — whose father was white — spent most of his life as the property of the first president of the Maryland Senate, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, an Annapolis man who built some of his wealth participating in the slave trade. Price was such a talented blacksmith and artisan that Jenifer rented him out for hire.
Freed in 1791 after Jenifer’s death, Price leased land from white men, cultivated an orchard and prospered — enough to purchase and donate the land for what became Asbury United Methodist Church, which Hayes-Williams’s family has attended for generations.
He also bought freedom for other enslaved people, some of whom helped create a thriving free black community outside the Annapolis city gates six decades before Maryland abolished slavery.
Price died in 1807. He and a son both were buried behind the church he helped found. Their bodies presumably stayed in that small graveyard until the early 1980s, when the poor black residents who still lived in the neighborhood were displaced. The area was bulldozed to make way for townhouses they could not afford.