Kingston groups hurrying to buy site of 250-year-old African-American cemetery

The site on a 1777 map of Kingston.

Driving down Pine Street just south of St. James, you’d never guess that one of the city’s most significant historic sites, lost and forgotten for over a century until City Historian Ed Ford first drew attention to it nearly 30 years ago, sits behind a decrepit stucco house. From at least 1750 to 1878, local slaves and freed blacks were buried on a large plot located in the “Armbowery” — land just south of Pine Street owned by the Commonwealth of Kingston and used by the poorer classes for farming and grazing. Back in 2011, the Kingston Land Trust (KLT) attempted to acquire the property and preserve the burial ground, a 70-by-225-foot plot, which extends almost to Fair Street and possibly holds hundreds of sets of remains.

A previous preservation group hoped to purchase the site, but couldn’t raise the money. Now the property is once again on the market. Last week, the KLT launched a fundraising campaign in its bid to purchase it from the loan-servicing agent of the bank which owns it. This time around, support for the project has grown exponentially, and the KLT, which is partnering with Harambee, a nonprofit organization in Kingston dedicated to promoting African-American cultural events and initiatives in the city, has a much better shot this time. The KLT committed $40,000 off the bat, and it had raised an additional $6,000 just within the first day or so.

But time is of the essence: the bank’s loan servicing agent, which had planned to auction off the building before learning about the existence of the cemetery, has agreed to sell the property for $127,500 to the KLT as a short sale. Julia Farr, executive director of the KLT, said the trust has set a goal of raising $200,000 within that time period, noting the extra funds are needed to “immediately shore up the house,” which is in poor condition.

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Tonight, Monday, Feb. 18, a fundraising happy hour for the project will be held at Rough Draft bookstore and bar at Crown and John streets in Uptown Kingston. Visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1057898277730397/ for more information.

“We’re optimistic we can raise the money,” she said, noting that both Mayor Steve Noble and Ward 5 Alderman Bill Carey support the project. The KLT has reached out to a variety of other land trusts, historic preservation organizations, businesses and groups specifically focused on African-American history and culture. Tyrone Wilson, executive director of Harambee, said his organization has formed a Protect the Pine Street African Burial Ground Coalition, which aims to raise $160,000. “Through the struggles and mistreatment of our ancestors and allies, we are united in the fight to give them peace and freedom in their death,” he noted in a press release.

Archaeologists use radar to get a peek below the site. (Photos courtesy Kingston Land Trust)

 

The results of the radar scan indicate numerous soil disturbances that could be graves.

 

Rediscovered by research

The cemetery, which has officially been named the African Burial Ground, had long been forgotten back in 1990, when historian Ford, who had acquired a copy of the Beers 1870 map of Kingston, became intrigued by the “coloured burial ground” notation identifying a lot on Pine Street. He alerted SUNY professor of anthropology and archaeologist Joseph Diamond, who was excited by Ford’s discovery and after researching the site determined it potentially could be as significant as the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan that was unearthed in 1993. In 1996, the owner of the concrete block building next door showed Diamond and Ford a box of bones, which he had uncovered while doing excavation work under his cellar. They were taken to the police, who passed them onto a forensic anthropologist, who identified them as probably African-American (they were later reburied in Mount Zion Cemetery).

Diamond did further studies of the site in 2006, and subsequently wrote an extensive article on his findings for Northeast Historical Archaeology; it’s posted on the KLT website). Last January, confirming that the cemetery does indeed exist, SUNY New Paltz geology professor John Rayburn and one of his students mapped the site using ground-penetrating radar at a depth of 1.2 and 1.3 meters and found dozens, if not hundreds, of anomalies in the soil whose long shape, arrangement in rows, and alignment (all point east, conforming to religious tradition) resemble coffins or buried bodies. (You can view the image, along with a sketch made by artist John Vanderlyn in 1819 of the Armbowery, at the KLT website, www.kingstonlandtrust.org; donations may also be made at the website.)

Visitors’ center envisioned

Should it successfully raise the funds and acquire the property, the KLT plans to launch a community-wide planning effort to help determine how the site could be best utilized. The plan would likely include restoring the house and transforming it into a visitors’ center. “Our vision is to open up the site to the public for learning and reflection. We’d work with Harambee on the programming and seek to attract school groups,” said Farr. While there are no gravestones on the site, interpretative signage, sculptures, and other types of structures could tell its history. She said the KLT and Harambee would also allow archaeologists from SUNY New Paltz to do “slit trenching” of the site and test the DNA of bones retrieved to learn more about the people who were buried there.

Farr said she sees the cemetery as catalyst for learning more about Kingston’s African-American history and said the KLT is reaching out to the black studies departments at local colleges, as well as Ulster County historian Geoffrey Miller. “We’d like to bring on a student from a local university to engage in a research project we’d host,” she said.

Only by acquiring the property can the KLT and Harambee be assured the site will be preserved: despite their historic importance, cemeteries located on private property are not protected, Farr said. Indeed, as noted in Diamond’s 2006 report, what prompted the another preservation group’s initial involvement was plans by a prospective buyer of the property to construct a parking lot on the site (the owner received a variance from the city but refused to undergo a State Environmental Quality Review Assessment for the property, as required by state law. The owner instead put the property on the market, which is when the previous group first tried to buy it).

 

A drawing by John Vanderlyn of the 18th-century countryside and where the burial ground sits.

Enslaved in life, shunned in death

According to Diamond’s article, “church burial had been denied enslaved individuals in New York since 1697,” forcing blacks to bury their dead outside the city limits, in “Common Ground” areas such as Kingston’s Armbowery. In 1750, the Trustees of Kingston laid out the burying ground for slaves. The 1790 census counted 2,906 slaves in Ulster County, comprising about a 10th of the population. Diamond noted that the Ulster County records had revealed the names of two individuals who were likely buried in the Pine Street cemetery in 1803, “the Negro man Sam” and “the Wench Dayon,” who was executed “for murder of her master’s child.”

As the city expanded, in 1853 it established the Mount Zion Cemetery, located a mile away on South Wall, then a desolate wilderness, as the burial place for African- Americans, and the Armbowery was subdivided into lots and streets. A lumberyard was established on the premises of the Pine Street cemetery. After doing extensive research, KLT board director Kevin McEvoy found a historical account noting the presence of three or four gravestones still standing amid the complex of lumberyard sheds.

He also discovered that prior to lumberyard owner Henry Palen purchasing the burial ground, it was acquired by Henry C. Rosencrans, an African-American collector and historian who had a shop at John and Wall and was the descendant of slaves for a Dutch family.

When the city announced its intention to sell off the cemetery, “people from the African-American community spoke at a remonstrance and weren’t happy,” McEvoy said. “After the public hearing, Rosencrans purchased it. In effect, the African-American community bought it back.” Rosencrans owned the property for six or seven years, until 1876.

Thirty years after the city historian first called for the cemetery on Pine Street to be preserved, that goal finally seems within reach — thanks to the leadership of such African-American leaders as Wilson and Frank Waters, who organizes the city’s comprehensive Black History events (both men moved to Kingston from New York City) and a stronger, better funded KLT, which back in 2011 didn’t have a paid executive director. (Farr is now assisted by a staff of three). “We have powerful partners to help lead, and we have new leadership and capacity, with more general support,” said Farr. But none of these organizations can do it alone, so consider donating and contributing to the preservation and elevation of a tragically neglected piece of Kingston’s history: visit www.kingstonlandtrust.org or www.harambeekingstonny.org — the goal is Feb. 28.

 

 

There is one comment

  1. Terrence

    So, banks as public companies are capable of making donations in-kind to charitable organizations. It would be a true act of goodness in a world where we see primarily greed at play, if the bank simply assumed the cost of the property, the cemetary group set up a non-profit status, and then the bank gifted the land to the group for restoration and preservation. The group could then launch GoFund me and other fundraising efforts to establish historical markers, visitor center and I’m pretty sure we could get volunteers to then roll up their sleeves and help do the hard work.

    Putting it out there, perhaps someone will see this and the bank could take positive philantrhopic action.

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