Rockville volunteer firefighters honor fallen members -- Gazette.Net


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One could walk by the cemetery every day and never know it existed.

A narrow stretch of land between a yellow house and wooded area on Martins Lane in Rockville opens into a shaded meadow — the final resting place for slaves and free black men and women.

But Monday, the hidden Haiti Cemetery will be the center of attention; Rockville Volunteer Fire Department firefighters honored the first black member of the current fire department, Robert Lewis, and the first black fire chief of Rockville, and perhaps Maryland, George Meads.

Meads, who died in 1919, is buried in Haiti Cemetery. Lewis died this year and is buried in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Aspen Hill.

“He was an inspiration to many of the members around here,” said Timothy Jones, president of the volunteer fire department, of Lewis. “When he joined in the 1960s, he wasn’t well received because of the thinking back then. But he was an outstanding member. He’s really missed by all the younger guys.”

Jones, a 40-year member of the volunteer fire department, is trying to put together a history of firefighting in the city. Jones learned about Meads earlier this year and started researching his life.

On Monday, the firemen gathered around Meads’ grave in an old lot off Martins Lane.

On Thursday, a push lawn mower buzzed through the cemetery in preparation for Monday's festivities. Guiding the mower was Warren Crutchfield, whose family has owned the property for generations.

"Blacks could not be buried in the white cemetery," Crutchfield said, noting his great grandmother used to offer other blacks plots in the Haiti Cemetery. "There are slaves buried in here."

Many of the graves are unmarked. A bulldozer came through at one point to clear space, knocking down headstones.

"Graves are all out here, but unmarked now," Crutchfield said, gesturing to the tall grass and dirt below.

Meads’ tombstone stands toward the back of the yard, a lone stone in the shade. Jones plunged a red flag that says “fire fighter” into the dirt beside it. Jones said he first saw this done in New England.

Meads earned special recognition in an April 7, 1885, The Baltimore Sun report about a fire in the home of Nannie Wootton.

Wootton left a fire burning in a wood stove in an upstairs room, which caught the woodwork around the mantle piece. Several hundred people assembled to help put out the fire, according to the report.

“The conduct of [George] Meads, a colored man, in carrying the hose through heat and dense smoke to the place of the fire and remaining there until the flames were extinguished, merits special notice and commendation,” the report says.

Firefighting in Rockville originated in 1806, when the city purchased a hand-drawn water barrel, according to a Peerless Rockville document about the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department.

And by 1900, Meads led a volunteer fire department — served, in part, by black people — as deputy sheriff.

Jones said he places the red flags next to the tombstones of all fallen Rockville fire fighters in the city.

And this year, that ritual included Meads.

abryant@gazette.net