Sylvia Bradley from Salisbury University years ago told me that black undertakers had a unique and important role in communities, particularly during the history of segregation. She told me they were often the only ones in their communities with ready cash to lend a hand to people experiencing emergencies. They had the tenuous position as a bridge between the black communities and white authorities. Her description to me during my early interests in history made me always curious about the undertakers. The Rev. Lewis H. Bayneum is the subject of this look at black undertakers.
Years ago I was learning about the unusually named cemetery at the edge of Cambridge, Maryland, the Silent City Cemetery, established by Bayneum. Others had a different name for it, but while viewing reels and reels of microfilm of Dorchester County death records, the name “Silent City” cemetery was often listed, and usually the undertaker for the death was Lewis Bayneum. When I had an opportunity to speak briefly with Bayneum’s son, Claude Bayneum, I asked if his father had had a sense of humor, thinking of that rather odd name for a cemetery. Claude chuckled and remarked, “Well, sort of, in his own way he did.” This amused me, given that Lewis Bayneum always looked so serious in photographs.
It turns out that Bayneum wore several hats. His grandson, Lewis H. Boardley, who continued the business, said proudly of Bayneum, “He was a minister, an upholsterer, and a mortician,” and that he was a “self-taught man.” Bayneum was a minister for the Zion Baptist Church in Cambridge. He was born January 12, 1880 in Bucktown. His mother, Rhoda Jolley Bayneum, was from Old Field. He began training for a trade, apprenticing with the white-owned LeCompte funeral business in Cambridge. He began his own funeral business by 1900. He married Sarah E. Cromwell; from that union there were 13 children, 11 of whom survived at the time of his death. Following the loss of his first wife, he later married Bertha Scott of Dover, Delaware. I understand that Zion Baptist Church was the first to broadcast by radio, on WASL.
It seems that Bayneum started the Silent City Cemetery during his years as an undertaker, purchasing the property himself, and providing a place to bury members of his church and those who were from outside of the area or had no other means of burial. He also started an “old folks home,” or a sort of home for the aged and nursing home.
When researching Bayneum’s death, I noticed that he left this world with the wind; he passed away from illness on the weekend Hurricane Hazel swept across the Eastern Shore. He died at Easton Memorial Hospital on October 17, 1954. He is buried at Bethel Cemetery in Cambridge.
But I noticed something oddly amusing (to me, anyhow) when I located his death certificate. Before seeing this, I had seen so many death records where the clerk had added his name time and time again. It was all in the same handwriting, so I imagined the same clerk doing this task, adding his name to so many death certificates. Well, I found his, and there had been a bit of an error. On the line noting the undertaker for Bayneum, she or he had mistakenly added Bayneum’s name, out of habit, I guessed. But the clerk noticed the mistake, crossed out his name and added the correct name. Something tells me that Bayneum would have been amused to know that he was his own undertaker.