Nearly 30 years after city historian Edwin Ford first identified an African-American burial ground on Pine Street and after repeated attempts by local historians to protect the site failed, it’s finally happened. The Kingston Land Trust (KLT), in partnership with Harambee, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and celebrating African-American history, has acquired the historic site at 157 Pine. Within a mere six months, it raised $140,000 to purchase and preserve the foreclosed property, which has a dilapidated house on the site. The deal closed on May 23, and last Saturday morning, the now-recognized sacred ground was officially sanctified by five gourd-shaking, turbaned women in white, who led a crowd of 100 people to the shady, overgrown backyard in a “Community Gratitude” ceremony.
Kingston resident, activist and arts organizer Micah Blumenthal conducted a prayerful mediation, encouraging the crowd to place one hand on the ground and remember those who were buried here “with gratitude and sorrow.” The Rev. Evelyn Clarke poured a libation in acknowledgement of “those who made the Middle Passage, who were sold on the auction block, those who had their children snatched from their arms, who labored in grist and sawmills, who built the houses of stone that stand today as a monument to them. … Rise up and live in us and we will not fail to honor you,” Clarke intoned.
Odell Winfield, director and board chair of the Library at the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center, said with streets and buildings named after slaveholders, African Americans needed to reclaim their space. “We need to watch over our ancestors … this is about a war against bad history,” he said. Historian Ford, now 101, was seated in the front row and briefly spoke, as did Steve Rosenberg, executive director at The Scenic Hudson Land Trust, which contributed $40,000 to the fundraising effort; KLT Executive Director Julia Farr; Tyrone Wilson, executive director of Harambee; and Joe Diamond, an archaeologist and professor at SUNY New Paltz.
In 1990, Ford and Diamond walked down the street and realized 157 Pine, the very deep back yard of which extends back 225 feet, matched the site of “the coloured burial ground” that Ford had noticed was inscribed on an 1870 map of Kingston, Diamond recalled. The graveyard “showed up in the historic record until the 1970s, when there were still some gravestones,” he said, recounting how in 1996, the owner of the neighboring building had discovered a box of human bones while doing excavation work in his cellar.
The clearest evidence that the site was a burial ground emerged last January, when Diamond and John Rayburn, a professor of geology at SUNY New Paltz, mapped the site using ground-penetrating radar 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.
Years after a failed attempt to acquire the property back in 2011, late last year members of the KLT learned the site was in foreclosure and negotiated with the bank to buy time to raise the funds. A goal of $200,000, which would cover not only the purchase price but also the renovation work to stabilize the house, was set. Partnering with Harambee, the KLT put in $40,000 and received a matching grant from Scenic Hudson. More than 250 donors, including the Old Dutch Church (which donated $10,000) and other nonprofits, as well as numerous local businesses, rose to the challenge, raising another $80,000. Harambee and the KLT hope to raise the remaining $60,000 by the end of the year. (To contribute, visit KingstonLandTrust.org; 845-877-5263; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Trying to solve mysteries
At the ceremony, Farr outlined next steps: turning the house into an interpretative center; putting together programming, which would include deciding on the appropriate way to physically commemorate the cemetery; and clearing and doing ground penetrating radar on a portion of the site that extends around the back of the neighboring property. (If there are no graves, Wilson said a community garden might be planted on the site, with educational programs on farming for youth.) Ongoing research to determine the number of people buried on the site, the time period, and their identities is also of a priority.
“The church records might identify someone by ‘Sam boy of somebody,’” said Winfield. “We need to do this research.” Farr said the KLT and Harambee have contacted the research departments of local universities and that in the future, “maybe we’ll excavate some remains to test DNA, working with the community to make sure we do it sensitively.” The KLT also plans to pursue landmark designation. Farr said details were also being worked out about whether the KLT and Harambee would jointly own the property or it would eventually be turned over to Harambee.
Fourteen sunflower seedlings, from heritage seeds harvested by the Mohawk Nation at the Akwesasne Reserve on the border of New York and Canada, were planted. the Rev. G. Modele Clarke, after explaining the origin and meaning of the term “Harambee,” encouraged the community to join in the preservation effort. “We must all pull together to make this a lasting legacy for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “Hopefully as they see us pulling together, it will take shape in their minds and become a greater thing.”