Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Legacy Distribution acquires "Sacred Ground: The Battle for Mount Auburn Cemetery"



Great news!  My award-winning feature length documentary, "Sacred Ground:  The Battle for Mount Auburn Cemetery," has been picked up by Legacy Distribution.

Mount Auburn Cemetery
"Sacred Ground:  The Battle for Mount Auburn Cemetery" tells the story of community activists and family members battling a Methodist Church for control of the historic African-American Cemetery.  For years, Mount Auburn Cemetery was the only place African-Americans could be buried in the city of Baltimore.  It is the burial place of lightweight boxing champion Joe Gans, the first African-American world champion in any sport, and numerous leaders of the early Civil Rights struggle.  It is a registered historic landmark that has fallen into such shocking disrepair that human bones litter the ground.  It is a tale of grave recycling and grave robbing but mostly a tale of underdogs fighting the powers-to-be so that their ancestors can rest in dignity.
Human jaw with tooth.  Found March 23, 2014
The film was a definite labor of love for all involved.  Here's how it came into being.

I first saw Mount Auburn Cemetery about twelve years ago.  I am an avid genealogist and a bit of a cemetery junkie.  One day, while driving from a cemetery in Anne Arundel County to a cemetery in West Baltimore, I drove past Mount Auburn with my cousin Charlotte Ernst.  We slowed down while we drove by, and we were astounded by its stage of disrepair.   The place stayed in my mind.  Later, I wrote a horror script called "Desecrated" which takes place predominately in an overgrown, urban African-American cemetery.  I based the location on Mount Auburn Cemetery.  Had the film gotten off the ground -- and it nearly did -- I would have hoped to have filmed it at Mount Auburn.  Sadly, the cemetery had become the perfect location for a horror movie.

Around September 2007, my wife Deborah and I watched the HBO film "Something The Lord Made" about heart surgery pioneers Dr. Alfred Blalock and his African-American assistant Vivien Thomas.  The movie was particularly moving to us because our little granddaughter was only alive because of an procedure made possible by the work of those two men.  Deborah wanted to do something to honor Vivien Thomas.  I looked him up on findagrave.com and found out that he was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery.*  The following Sunday we drove over to Mount Auburn with the hope of putting some flowers on his grave.  With weeds as tall as us covering the bulk of the thirty-three acre cemetery, we soon realized we could never hope to find his grave.  Now, the injustice perpetrated upon the people buried there, and their families, became very real to us.  We wanted to do something.  But what?
Activist and family member Lu Moorman
by the lid of an unearthed casket.
I had been a contributor to the website findagrave.com for a number of years.  I decided that I would do my best to document the graves visible through the underbrush.  I would photograph the graves and put them online.  Often, I would look the people up on various genealogical sites and include some biographical data.  Eventually my posts attracted the attention of Lu Moorman.   Disgusted by conditions at the cemetery and a total lack of responsiveness from its owners, Sharp Street Memorial Church, Lu had set up a non-profit organization called Preservation Alliance.  She began consulting with various experts with the hope of wresting control of the cemetery from the church and restoring it herself.   Lu contacted me and asked about my interest in the cemetery.  Debbie, Lu and I got together.  We told her we wanted to help.  She said she needed a short film to illustrate current conditions at the cemetery.  We said we would try to help.

I immediately contacted an old friend David Butler.   David is a talented director with his own successful production company in Annapolis, Maryland.  I told David about the situation.  After one visit to the cemetery, he agreed to help make the film for Lu.  It was an easy decision.  Between the two of us, we had all of the skills and equipment necessary.   However, after a few days of shooting, David, Debbie and I became convinced that this was a suitable subject for a true documentary.   Not because we wanted to make money, but out of a desire for social justice.  These families, struggling for dignity for their ancestors, needed a voice and we wanted to give it too them.
Director David Butler, Associate Producer Lynda Meier and yours truly
This decision, however, led to us separating somewhat from Lu Moorman.  Although we made Lu the short film she needed, the documentary had to be independent.  Although we viewed the film as an activist piece, we knew we would lose all journalistic integrity if we were viewed as members of Preservation Alliance.   We needed to be even-handed.  We had to talk to Rev. Douglas Sands, the chairman of the board of the cemetery, and his daughter, Rev. Dell Hinton, the pastor of Sharp Street Memorial Church, and the members of their proposed restoration team.  That would never happen if they thought we worked for one of their enemies.  Although they always remained suspicious of us, I must give the two Reverends credit for talking to us on numerous occasions.  We returned the favor by letting them tell their story their own way.  We didn't use manipulative editing to make them look bad.   No Michael Moore tactics here.  Personally, I liked Doug Sands.  He's a charming individual with the gift of the gab.

The film was shot over a period of six years as the narrative took many twists and turns.  David and I did most of the work ourselves, but we did benefit from some volunteers.  Rege Becker came out and did some shooting.  Bernie Ozol and Timothy Ratajczak came out and helped with the sound.  Jack Hyerman and Andrew Eppig at Clean Cuts provided us with a much-needed sound mix and a soundtrack by Wall Matthews.  Our title sequence was provided by Cerebral Lounge.  We also relied on the vital and timely assistance of associate producer Lynda Meier.  I also must credit my wife, associate producer Deborah Murphy, for her assistance.  While Dave and I were often absorbed in the technical aspects of the shooting, Debbie provided the friendly face of the production to the curious and sometimes suspicious people in the neighborhood.  We ended up with some of our most crucial interviews as a result of the relationships she developed.

Lynda Meier and Deborah Murphy
Mostly, I want to thank the people who took the time to appear in the film.   In the end, this film is ultimately about Lu Moorman's journey to try to restore the cemetery.  None of this would have happened without her.  I also want to thank the dean of cemetery restoration experts:  Robert Mosko.   No one knows more about cemeteries than him.  I also want to thank Carolyn Jacobi of Eternal Justice, an outspoken activist against injustices in the death care industries.  I also want to thank family members Tavon Claggett, Janette Wheeler and Donald "Luke" Watson.  Luke was the one who alerted us to an impending burial -- something we desperately wanted to film.   He also explained what we were doing to the family of the deceased, all of whom were not initially happy to see us filming the burial.  I also really want to thank Anthony Harris for coming forward and telling us about the abuses he personally witnessed at the cemetery as an employee.  That took a lot of courage.  The list goes on and on of those who have given us their time, insight and wisdom.  I hope we related your voice and views accurately.


David and I had a long talk with Dana Webber of Legacy Distribution.  As my earlier blogs should reveal, I tend to have a skeptical opinion of distributors but she seemed to have a realistic viewpoint of the options available for the film.  I suspect that it will find a home(s) on a cable network in the near future to be followed by its release on various streaming websites.  Kudos to our reps, Peter Greene and John Gursha at Film Marketing Services.   They found us a good deal we certainly wouldn't have found ourselves.

The film is done, but its mission has only begun.  Much work has been done at Mount Auburn since we began filming, but much work remains to be done.  Hopefully this film will inspire people to make it happen!


Here's the trailer:



*By the way, it turns out Vivien Thomas was not buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery.  It was a false entry in findagrave.com.  When Lu Moorman discovered the truth she was almost afraid to tell us because she feared we'd lose interest in the film.  By then, however, we were hooked.




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