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Tales from the Crypt

by Clare Coppa

There’s nothing like a good ghost story as November’s rain and wind drive in the desolation of winter. If anyone is in a position to see a ghost, it’s scientist Roger Blaine who tends an abandoned graveyard.

Blaine hasn’t seen any ghosts at Mount Zion, a unique African American cemetery in Wilmington, Del., but has unearthed historic markers since he began clearing the site he found trashed and overgrown 18 years ago. “For me it’s a matter of respect,” says Blaine, who lives nearby in New Castle. “I’m out here trying to clean this up so that others can show their respect as well.”

Others noticed the sad condition of the cemetery. Jazz trumpeter/educator Donald Byrd, Ph.D., was “taken aback” when he visited the grave of Wilmington-born jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown (1930-56). “Which is also near the place where the famous vibra-harpist Len Winchester is interred,” wrote Byrd in a tribute to Brown. “Another point that left me speechless,” Byrd continued, “was, at this Wilmington historical burial ground/site, there are many slave markers which have dates that are in the early 1800s, before emancipation. ... Here was my friend, idol, and one of the greatest trumpet players of this century interred beneath the garbage, rubbish, and abandoned auto parts ...”

African Americans created the cemetery as a corporation so all denominations could be buried there, says Blaine, Mount Zion’s unofficial unpaid caretaker: “But when the land filled up in the 1970s, no further money came in. The cemetery was abandoned, and in the 1990s grew to be completely overgrown with brambles and bushes and trees and shrubs. You couldn’t even get in the gate to visit family or a loved one.”

Blaine belongs to the Baha’i religious community which focuses on the “oneness of humanity” by improving race relations. He first visited Mount Zion in 1985 to pay respects to Etta Woodlen (1894-1965), a Delaware Baha’i founder and teacher at Howard High School, Wilmington. “I eventually located the gravesites which were marked for these early Baha’i pioneers,” he says, “and as a matter of respect I cleaned them up, mowed the grass and cleaned the brush away and so on. After I had done them, I just kind of kept mowing in ever bigger circles. And finally was able to get the help of some other folks.”

Many graves at Mount Zion are completely unidentified because people couldn’t afford a monument, Blaine says, adding, “There are also burial places for the Winchester family. The first Delaware African American congressman was one of the Winchester family and is buried in the cemetery.”

In thermal analysis 30 years, Blaine is senior chemist at TA Instruments, New Castle. He has developed standards with ASTM Committee E37 on Thermal Measurements since it was formed 30 years ago. An amateur historian, he considers ASTM’s global focus historic. “If I were, 50 years from now, looking back on the history of ASTM, the time that we’re going through right now would be really historic, a milestone in the change of the way ASTM developed.” Blaine is gathering written and oral histories, and plans to write a history of the Baha’i community in Delaware when he retires.

Copyright 2003, ASTM