Schuyler Flatts Re-Burial and African Burial Grounds in New York State

15 May
 1024x1024Burial grounds of enslaved Americans are landmarks of American history. However, many are abandoned, undocumented, covered over by “development,” and lack any type of recognition or protection.  Societal neglect has forced the burial grounds to continually disappear from our landscape, depriving generations of heritage and history.  The sites are sacred and represent lost stories within our nation’s narrative, and a forgotten people who are deserving of dignity and remembrance.  “They have been bulldozed over by shopping centers, crept over by weeds and forgotten by time. Across the country, from Lower Manhattan to the Deep South, are unmarked slave burial sites, often discovered only by chance or by ignominious circumstance as when construction crews accidentally exhume bodies when building a shopping mall.” — The New York Times


Forgotten Cemeteries of Inwood (Upper Manhattan, NY): Hundreds of years of even sparse population generated numerous graves. In some lay the long forgotten members of once famous families. In other plots were the remains of former enslaved, the fallen dead of the Revolutionary War; and even Native Americans. This colonial burial ground was established in 1677, 417 persons were buried in this graveyard located near what is today West 212th Street. In 1905 the Dyckman family remains…were removed. In the spring of 1890 workers near the present junction of Dyckman Street and Sherman Avenue stumbled upon the fragments of a beautiful jar that appeared to be of aboriginal handiwork. Further digging uncovered large amounts of decaying oyster shells indicating a possible Indian feasting site.


Enslaved burial ground, 10th Avenue between 211th and 212th Streets, map by Reginald Bolton.

According to an 1897 New York Times article, “an examination of the deposit revealed split bones, bits of rude pottery, and a number of arrow points of quartz.” Soon skeletons began to emerge from the earth, and with them proof that what was thought to be an Indian burial ground was actually an early colonial cemetery. In March of 1903 construction workers digging near what is now 212th Street and 10th Avenue made a gruesome, yet bizarre, discovery. News accounts from the time describe about a dozen giant human skeletons, many buried upright in the earth. Workers said the heads of the skeletons were buried three feet beneath the surface. Some of the skeletons measured seven feet in length. According to a New York Times article, “An old cannon ball was found in or near one of the strange graves. Each body rested beneath an uncut stone set endwise. Many similar stones near by as yet undisturbed indicate that more bones will be found.” An Inwood old-timer named Walter White, at the time of the discovery, recalled that in his youth, “it was a well known fact that the Dyckman, Vermilye and Hadly families had once used the little knoll as a burying ground for slaves.” [Read full article: Forgotten Cemeteries of Inwood]


African gravestone marker in the Huguenot Street Cemetery

African Burial Site at Historic Huguenot Street: I visited Huguenot Street during my 3-months in New York. I was immediately struck by how in-tact the historic site had been preserved and even more that the narrative of the Black presence was being interpreted at the site. During the  private tour I received, I asked if there were any Blacks buried on there? After attending several burial ground commemoration events I should not have been surprised when the answer was, ‘yes’! My awesome shared with me that very close by there was an ‘official African burial ground’; however, it was on private property and could not be easily accessed without advanced notice. However, she shared, there was a marker and site of commemorating the remains of one African woman found on the historic site. My awesome guide immediately took me to the cemetery on the property where many Huguenot Street families are buried. Like so many of the remains of Blacks who toiled, it’s as if, from their ‘unmarked graves’ they are one-by-one being re-discovered and being re-interred with the proper ‘rites of passage’. As I stood in front of the marker that bore the ‘Sankofa’ symbol, I felt as if I too was re-claiming a part of my heritage and history..

Schuyler Flats Re-burial: Remains of the 14 presumed enslaved will soon be reburied near the Hudson River, 11 years after construction workers uncovered the unmarked gravesite. This time, local volunteers are honoring the seven adults, five infants and two children in a way that would have been unthinkable when they died. They will be publicly memorialized and buried in personalized boxes beside prominent families in old Albany. “It’s something we agonized over because it’s very rare that you have an opportunity to not just speak about the lives of the enslaved, but to actually do something to honor them,” said Cordell Reaves, of the Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground Project. “We have an obligation to make sure that these people receive a level of dignity and respect that they never received in life.”


‘Forgotten Bones’, by Lois Huey, one of the State of NY archeologists

St. Agnes Cemetery donated a prime plot high on a hillside. Kelly Grimaldi, historian for the Roman Catholic cemetery, said they chose granite over marble because it will last forever. The remains will be placed in handcrafted boxes, each decorated with the symbol for Sankofa, which Reaves translates from the language of Ghana as “return and fetch it.” Their headstone is already set. The etching, echoing the style of 18th-century graves, reads: “Here lies the remains of 14 souls known only to God. Enslaved in life, they are slaves no more.”

Archeologists found remains in 2005 after a backhoe operator uncovered a skull during sewer construction just north of Albany. Graves were in two rows, heads pointed west. No personal items were exhumed, though the graves still yielded clues about who they were.The type of wrought iron nails on the coffins and brass pins on the shrouds indicated burials in the 18th or early 19th centuries. They were buried on the former site of a farm owned by members of the locally prominent Schuyler family, who kept slaves. DNA tests on five of the women and one man showed maternal ancestry either from Africa and Madagascar. Another woman, identified as of African descent based on the shape of her bones, had Native American roots on her mother’s side. Isotope analyses of their remains show they were born locally. Given the time, the place and their race, they were almost certainly slaves.

The thin historical record of slaves is often limited to wills, for sale ads and runaway notices. One rare glimpse from the Schuyler farm comes in the memoir of a woman who spent time there as a girl in the 1760s. Anne Grant writes of slaves cutting wood, threshing wheat, cooking and eating under a big shade tree. In language that can make 21st-century readers wince, Grant described the “gentle treatment” of slaves in the area. But the bones suggest lives that were anything but.


Facial rendering of 3 of the 14 remains found (New York State Museum)

The adults had muscular hands, arms and legs consistent with hard work. They were plagued by arthritis and missing teeth. One woman had arthritis in her back, shoulder and jaw by her 30s. Her front teeth had small notches in them, possibly from pulling thread across them repeatedly. Another woman, older than 50, had arthritis in all her major joints, fractures on her neck and lower back, and four broken ribs. Any markers on the graves were long gone by the time the remains were uncovered. Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground Project manager Evelyn Kamili King said it’s her mission to see that they are never forgotten again. “This is what I need to do for my African ancestors,” she said. Individually decorated boxes with the remains will lie in state on Friday, June 17, at the nearby Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site once inhabited by relatives of the farm operators. They will be buried the next day on a landscaped cemetery hillside within walking distance from where they were first buried [Source: ABC News: Honor at Last – Former Slaves Reburied Centuries Later].

Video of the news report (May 12, 2016)

Most are now well aware of the African Burial Ground and now a National Park Historic site in midtown Manhattan. Other sites we should all know about include: First, the Saint Marks A.M.E. Church in Jackson Heights, (South Bronx, NY). The church was founded in 1828 on the site of the burial ground as the United African Society. Over the years, the congregation’s name and location changed. “The site is very significant because it is believed to be one of the first places where former (en)slaved organized and started their own church,” said the church’s pastor Kimberly Detherage.“ The construction crew found the body of an African woman in 2011 when a machine accidentally dredged up her iron casket as they were tearing down a decades-old warehouse. She is believed to have died in the 1850s [Read full story: Freed Slave Burial Ground]

The second, includes the sites associated with the Sag Harbor’s Eastville Community Historical Society and Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. I attended an interesting event at Bay Street Theatre in February about the stories of African-American East Enders that have “been hidden, forgotten, untold, fragmented and/or fabricated.” The panel discussion and exhibition, titled “How is the Story Told? An observance of East End African-American burying grounds,” is in keeping with this year’s Black History Month theme: Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memories. “We pay tribute to generations of African-Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship rights in life by honoring their varied stories in death. The importance of remembering and telling the story of our past enables us to celebrate our shared history and future,” the museum stated. “By taking account of the sensitivity and sacred nature of burial grounds, we use this discussion as a springboard for re-creating what was invisible, visible. The authenticity of evoked emotion is dependent upon telling the stories, making connections to individuals, mapping social diversity, global connection, and pathways to cultural co-existence and diversity.” The presentation included information about burial ground sites on Shelter Island and in Sag Harbor, East Hampton and Southampton, and the work being done to preserve these grave sites [See video below and read the full article: East End’s African Burial Ground]

Why Slave’s Graves’ Matter 

“Memorialization keeps us connected to what is most significant about those who are no longer with us.”, said Sandra Arnold, founder of the Periwinkle Initiative, established to create the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans. Sandra asks in her recent article, “Why Slaves’ Graves Matter“, what does it mean that the grave sites of countless enslaved Americans have not been afforded this recognition? Since the emancipation of enslaved Americans, their public memory has become abstract. Cemeteries, graveyards and memorials are visual reminders for us. They exist because we desire to memorialize those buried there. By gracing the sacred spaces of enslaved Americans with that same intention, we can give humanity and dignity to their memory.

That is what propelled Arnold to create the initiative. When the database is completed, it will be the first national repository of information on the grave sites of individuals who died while enslaved or after they were emancipated. Anyone who comes to the website will eventually be able to submit information about these places and conduct searches. many grave sites of formerly enslaved Americans are abandoned, undocumented, desecrated by the asphalt of “development,” and lack any type of memorialization or recognition. The burial grounds are often found incidentally by developers under parks and office buildings, and for many of the sites, oral history is their only source of documentation.

“Our country should explore ways to preserve the public memory of enslaved Americans. Their overlooked lives are an inextricable part of the historical narrative of our country — and not simply because they were the “beneficiaries” of the 13th Amendment. We should remember enslaved Americans for the same reason we remember anyone; because they were fathers, mothers, siblings and grandparents who made great contributions to our nation. Regardless of our country’s history or our ambivalence about the memory of slavery, we can choose to remember the enslaved — the forgotten. They offer our contemporary society examples of resilience and humanity. Preserving their memory contributes to our own humanity.” [Read Arnold’s full article: Why Slave’s Graves’ Matter]

Below is a short video I took of Sandra’s presentation introducing the Periwinkle Initiative, held at the Eastville Historical Society’s ‘African Burial Ground Commemoration’ in Sag Harbor this past February, during Black History Month. I was impressed with how organized the Eastville descendent community were in preserving their cultural heritage.


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