Remembering Long Forgotten Graves of East End’s African-American Population

Alex and Stella Miller discuss David Cosgrove's gravestone woodcarvings with show curator Donnamarie Barnes "How is the Story Told? An Observance of East End African-American Burial Grounds" at Bay Street Theater on Sunday. February 21. Michael Heller
Alex and Stella Miller discuss David Cosgrove’s gravestone woodcarvings with show curator Donnamarie Barnes “How is the Story Told? An Observance of East End African-American Burial Grounds” at Bay Street Theater on Sunday. February 21. Michael Heller

By Stephen J. Kotz

 Long overlooked, the final resting places of the East End’s early African-American residents have lately been getting some tender loving care.

Some, like the slave cemetery at Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor or the solitary grave of Ned, a freed black slave, in East Hampton Town’s Freetown that was recently rededicated, have been in the public eye. Others, like the historic St. David AME Zion Church Cemetery in Sag Harbor’s Eastville, are being studied to learn more about the families of early Sag Harbor settlers who are buried there. Still others are likely waiting to be discovered, perhaps off a woodland trail or even in a seemingly vacant corner of a colonial-era graveyard.

The idea of remembering those long lost graves and the role their occupants played in our history was the topic of an exhibit and panel discussion at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Sunday. “How Is the Story Told? An Observance of East End African-American Burying Grounds” was a joint presentation of the Eastville Community Historical Society of Sag Harbor and the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

The panel, moderated by journalist Karl Grossman, brought together Sandra Arnold, the founder of the Periwinkle Initiative, which is compiling a national database of the cemeteries of enslaved African-Americans; Dr. Stephen Mrozowski, the director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a Sylvester Manor board member; Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, the executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society, and Zachary Cohen, the chairman of East Hampton Town’s nature preserve committee, which has also been charged with inventorying the town’s old family cemeteries.

“Cemeteries can provide significant insight into history,” Mr. Grossman said in his introductory remarks, taking a brief detour to discuss Sag Harbor’s Jewish cemetery, where Hungarian Jews once insisted their dead be buried separately from the rest of the local Jewish population.

“In contrast to that dopey split, there is no humor to it at all,” Mr. Grossman said of the way African-Americans were often buried in unmarked graves. “The story really is heartbreaking.”

Dr. Grier-Key stressed that the focus needs to be put on paying respect to the final resting places of “all marginalized members of society,” whether they be African-Americans, Native-Americans, or even Irish laborers, who were also segregated from mainstream society.

Referring to the case of Ned, who died in 1817 and whose gravestone simply refers to him as the “Faithful Negro Manservant to Capt. Jeremiah Osborn,” Dr. Grier-Key said, “There are plenty of stories like that off the beaten path. We just don’t know where they are.”

Ms. Arnold, whose Periwinkle Institute — so named because the purple-blue flower is often found around old gravesites — told the gathering that as an African-American growing up in rural Tennessee, “I’d always known since I was a child that we were basically enslaved in that community where we still live today.” Her great-grandfather was born a slave in 1855, but when he died in 1946, he was buried in a marked grave in the cemetery of the plantation where he had lived.

While blacks and whites were buried in the same graveyard, they were still segregated, with the blacks on one side, the whites on the other, she said. Those blacks who died before slavery was abolished, were buried in unmarked graves.

“I’m always grateful whenever anyone is making an effort to focus on the process,” she said. “The sites, unfortunately, are not protected well throughout the country. It’s one thing to document them, but if we are not protecting them we are not doing them justice. The heart of my work is humanizing the experience of enslaved Americans and encouraging public respect.”

Dr. Mrozowski, who had been hired by the Fiske family, the former owners of Sylvester Manor, to oversee a major investigation of its grounds, said as in many other former plantations, the manor did not bury its slaves in marked graves. But he said it was reassuring that Alice Fiske, the property’s owner, was willing to confront the legacy of her family’s slave ownership.

“Archaeology is not just about the past. It’s about the future. It’s about shaping a better world,” he said. “History is replete with hard, hard stories, but they are American stories.”

Mr. Cohen, who recounted the long, tedious process to both uncover Ned’s headstone and learn more about his life in East Hampton, said he had nonetheless been inspired to search for other forgotten gravesites in East Hampton.

One burial site has particularly piqued his interest, he said, citing the grave of Thomas Jefferson Davis, who fought in the Civil War and died in 1902. His headstone is the only marker in a roughly 25-by-45-foot cemetery on Old Stone Highway in Amagansett. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we turn up some other graves there,” he said. “A census recorded nine people lived in his house. We still don’t know why he was buried there. On some records he is listed as mulatto, so it is possible he is buried with Native-Americans.”

Part of the duties of the town’s nature preserve committee is to catalog all the old cemeteries in the town, and Mr. Cohen said he would like to link as many names as possible to the cemeteries so that the stories of those buried in each one can be better understood and remembered.

That also underscores the work being done at the St. David AME Zion Church Cemetery in Eastville, where many early inhabitants of that diverse Sag Harbor neighborhood were buried. Even though St. David AME Zion Church is the oldest church still standing on its original foundation in the village, Dr. Grier-Key said that when the village first established the boundaries of its historic district, “they stopped a block before this church.”