KINGSTON – Some 200 people participated in a community gratitude ceremony on Saturday, to commemorate the successful preservation of a long-forgotten Kingston historical site — the unmarked resting place of many colonial and early-American New York slaves.
A event, including a drum procession, guest speakers, Harambee prayer circle, and discussion, was held at the Pine Street African Burial Ground, located on the outskirts of uptown Kingston, near St. James Street, at the backyard of #157 Pine.
It was the public’s first viewing of the lost graveyard — a kick-off for Kingston’s 7th Annual Juneteenth Celebration in honor of African American freedom from slavery, held later that same afternoon at Hasbrouck Park, down Delaware Avenue.
“Don’t erase our history, we must watch over our ancestors. This cemetery, this gravesite, where our ancestors are, we will watch over them. Ancestors must rest in peace,” said Odell Winfield, library director of the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center. “We must claim our space. I do acknowledge the Land Trust, Open Space, and all the other allies that helped us create this space, where our ancestors rest, but we must take care of our ancestors,” he said.
“This African burial here, it was a community effort, it was not about a color barrier, it was a whole diversity of a community that came together, that saw this was important enough to say, we need to do something about it,” agreed Tyrone Wilson, executive director of Harambee, Coalition.
A total of $140,000 has been collected, through the Kingston Land Trust, donors including Scenic Hudson, and the Old Dutch Church – allowing the property to be purchased this spring. A remaining $60,000 fundraising goal remains to rehabilitate the existing house into an interpretive center, operated by Harambee Coalition. Other projects include further ground-penetrating radar, and possible exhumation testing.
Interest in the project began in 1990, during a reconnaissance archaeological survey conducted by Joseph Diamond, a SUNY New Paltz Anthropology professor, and Edwin Ford, the Kingston city historian. They were looking for an African burial ground noted on old area maps, including specifically the 1870 and 1875 Beers Atlas of Ulster County.
Neighbor Andrew Kirschner gave the two researchers a box of human bones collected from his basement floor, while repairing water lines. Kingston Police sent the remains to the Onondaga County medical examiner. Forensic anthropologist Dr. William Rodriguez declared the bones “probably African-American in origin.” Diamond reported the findings in a paper presented in 2001 to 68th annual meeting of the Eastern States Archaeological Federation, in Watertown NY, titled “Owned in Life, Owned in Death: The Pine Street African and African American Burial Ground in Kingston, New York.”
Evidence from the maps, combined with other historical records including deeds and old meeting minutes, were corroborated by the human skeletons, and later also ground-penetrating radar, showing multiple grave plots, some of them layered and criss-crossed.
The general area was once a public commons, called the Arm Bowery, or “Poor Farm,” located a few blocks south of the Stockade historic district. Marius Schoonmaker, author of the 1888 “History of Kingston, New York: From Its Early Settlement to the Year 1820,” details original partitioning of these lands, by the Trustees of Kingston, on October 6. 1750, with “a burial ground for colored people designated and laid out on the west side of Pine Street, 200 feet south of St. James Street, where it is now covered by a lumberyard. It was used as a burial place for over 100 years.” A landscape of the original field, illustrated from the Five Corners, is used as frontispiece for Schoonmaker’s book.
The Kingston African-American Burial Ground Project, an ad-hoc preservation group, failed in the mid-1990s to persuade Kingston officials, and the Friends of Historic Kingston, to assist in acknowledging the unmarked graves.
“If you know anything about the laws of New York State, and some of the federal laws, when a person was buried, if there was not an above-ground marker, it was not considered a cemetery. That’s why this land could be sold, and these people under the ground, can be owned in death, like they were owned in life,” Winfield noted.
“We must understand, slavery was a part of American history. We can’t allow it to die, we can’t acknowledge it today, and not acknowledge it tomorrow. We can’t say that we got a gravesite, and turn it into a center; this is a war against bad history,” Winfield added. Similar sites at Bard College in Tivoli, and at Cragsmoor, have also been discovered; the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, excavated in 1993, being the most publicized.
“Maybe there’s an awful lot that can be learned from this site; it’s such a wonderful opportunity, I can’t think of a better project for us to do right now,” Ford said. Other city officials, including the Kingston mayor and several city aldermen, were present but did not make remarks.
The African ceremony contrasted with the recent May16th re-dedication of a forgotten cemetery at the Ulster County Fairgrounds, by including spiritual components to the program.
The former county poorhouse graveyard, rather than being preserved and respected, was bulldozed using the sloppy and sacrilegious coroner’s method. The former Houghtaling Cemetery, also abandoned on Pine Street, met a similar fate, with a small portion deposited into the Old Dutch Church graveyard, to make way for a medical center.
“We are here for those who were lost; for those who were stolen; for those who were left behind; for those who died in the Middle Passage, on their way to this land; for those who stood on the auction block, for those whose children were snatched from their arms, never to be seen again; for those who labored in the grist mills and the saw mills in this valley; who labored to build the houses of stone, that stand today as a monument to them; we acknowledge you, our ancestors, every time we look at a stone house, or drive on the Albany Post Road that you built; we say that we remember and we will not forget,” said Evelyn Clarke.
“This Oath is for those our Ancestors
Our Ancestors, Blacker than a thousand midnights
Our African Ancestors
It is to you that we, your Children, give Respect and Honor
Oh, Ancestors, we call upon you, we welcome you to this place
African Ancestors, let your Presence fall, and fill this place
Oh, Ancestors, we have been purposefully excluded from the history books
You have been purposefully excluded from the history
And so, that the World would not even know of your Greatness
Oh African Ancestors, who gave Civilization to the World
Our African Ancestors who gave the Arts to the World
Our African Ancestors who gave Music to the World
Our African Ancestors who gave Science to the World
Our African Ancestors who gave Mathematics to the World
Our African Ancestors who gave Medicine to the World
And gave Literacy and Philosophy and Consciousness to the World
Oh, Ancestors, we thank you
For devoting your Life to make a Future for us, your Children
Now, stand with us, strengthen us, guide us, teach us
And protect us from the snare of our enemies
Rise up, oh Ancestors, and let your enemies be scattered
And give us the Wisdom and Boldness to deal with our oppressors
Liberation and Empowerment of our People
Rise up, oh African Ancestors, and live in us
And we will not fail to Honor you
We will not fail to hear you
And we will not betray you
Asẹ, Asẹ, Asẹ.”