This is part two of the history of the pet cemetery in Aspen Hill, Maryland, now known as Aspin Hill Memorial Park.
Richard and Bertha Birney ran the pet cemetery until 1944, when both of them died. Richard Birney died first, on August 28 1, and Bertha followed him in death on November 25 2. Bertha’s obituary in the Montgomery County Sentinel stated that the cemetery would continue to be operated by George and Gertrude Young. This couple was apparently already working at the cemetery prior to the Birneys’ deaths.
In 1946, the estate of Richard and Bertha Birney sold the property known as Aspin Hill including the kennels and cemetery. 3 It was purchased by a newly-formed corporation called Aspin Hill, Inc. 4 Its principal was a veterinarian named Edgar Ruebush. As far as I can tell, after the Birneys died, Aspin Hill no longer provided kennels and became primarily a pet cemetery. George and Gertrude Young remained the operators of the cemetery after it was purchased by Ruebush.
One of the Youngs’ most notable contribution to the cemetery grounds was its only mausoleum, erected to entomb their Boston terrier, Mickey. A low stone wall surrounds the mausoleum, and within its bounds are buried other pets that they owned. They retired from the cemetery around 1961. George died in 1967 5 and Gertrude in 1968. 6 They were buried in their plot at Aspin Hill. A flat grave marker for the couple sits just outside the entrance to Mickey’s mausoleum.
Discrimination at the Pet Cemetery
During the first four or five decades of its existence, Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery’s services were not extended to African Americans. The earliest newspaper article that I could find on the subject appeared in The Chicago Defender, (a prominent African-American newspaper) in 1946. In his column, “Adventures in Race Relations,” Alfred E. Smith shared the story of Washington resident and Labor Department employee, Roy A. Ellis. 7
Mr. Ellis explained that his family owned a beloved dog, and when he died, they grieved him so much that they wanted to bury him in a pet cemetery. They telephoned Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery to make arrangements. Negotiations were nearly complete when the cemetery staff asked about the race of the pet owners. When they were told, “Negro,” the family was told, “Aspin Hill does not bury colored dogs.” It was noted in the article that the dog was a white Spitz. Other attempts by African Americans were made to bury their pets at Aspin Hill, but they were rebuffed. 8 The cemetery manager defended the practice, according to observers, by saying that he “…assumed the dogs would not object but he was afraid his white customers would.” 9
The story of discrimination by Aspin Hill and other pet cemeteries was often cited in newspaper articles and civil rights speeches when describing how racial segregation affected African Americans throughout their lives. In a speech to Howard University law students in 1966, Thurgood Marshall had this to say: “It has been from pre-cradle to after-death. Negro women couldn’t get into hospitals to have their babies and Negroes couldn’t be buried in cemeteries not their own. Even pets couldn’t be buried in some cemeteries unless their masters were white.” 10
Later that year, then Solicitor General Marshall spoke at a seminar for U. S. students that were headed to Latin American universities on Fulbright-Hays grants. In his speech, “Civil Rights in America,” he remarked, “In this town of Washington, D. C. back in either the late twenties or early thirties, a wealthy doctor had a dog, which died. He tried to put it in a high-powered pet cemetery. They told him they were very sorry. The end of the story. I know the man. I knew the dog. The dog was a pure white Spitz but he had made the mistake of having a black owner.” 11
It is not known when the first African American was allowed to bury a pet at Aspin Hill; cemetery records do not include the race of the owner. On January 16, 1962, the Montgomery County Council adopted an ordinance outlawing bias in public accommodations based on race, color, creed, ancestry, or national origin. The ordinance, which also established a nine-person Human Relations Commission went into effect on February 15 of that year. 12
This is part 2 of the history of Aspin Hill. See all 4 parts at:
- Richard C. Birney. Washington Post, August 28, 1944; Montgomery County Sentinel, August 31, 1944.
- Bertha T. Birney. Washington Post, November 27, 1944; Montgomery County Sentinel, November 30, 1944.
- Maryland Land Records, Liber 1033 folio 159 (1946) https://mdlandrec.net/
- Articles of Incorporation. Aspin Hill, Inc. State of Maryland, Liber 216, folio 63
- George J. Young, 1889-1967
- Gertrude C. Young, 1893-1968
- Smith, Alfred E. “Adventures in Race Relations: Solution.” The Chicago Defender; Jan 12, 1946; p. 13.
- “Adventures in Race Relations: Discomfort.” The Chicago Defender; Aug 9, 1947; p. 15.
- “Leaders Hit D. C. Jim Crow Bias: Case After Case Of Evil Rule Cited.” Atlanta Daily World; Dec 11, 1948; p. 1.
- “Marshall Stresses U.S. Civil Rights Role.” The Washington Post, Times Herald; Apr 27, 1966; p. B4.
- Seminar on Civil Rights and Race Relations, Washington, 1966. Civil Rights and Race Relations. Participants, Elliott P. Skinner, Thurgood Marshall and Robert J. Fox. Washington, Office of Equal Opportunity; for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1966. p. 20.
- Dessoff, Alan L. “New Human Relations Commission To Administer County Anti-Bias Law.” The Washington Post Times Herald, January 18, 1962. p. B6.