NEWBURGH – This Memorial Day, as we reflect and pause to remember the brave men and women who laid down their lives on behalf of our nation, some have been forgotten.
No flags were placed atop what historically has been documented as the “Colored Burial Grounds” in Newburgh. During construction of the city courthouse in 2008, 106 bodies were dis-interred, some were military.
It is believed a total of 390 people were buried at the site from 1840-1870. The late Richard “Dickie” Peterson, one of the original Colored Burial Ground Commemoration Committee members acquired documentation that at least two Black Veterans of the Civil War are buried on the site. Artifacts were also dug up at the site which included a button from a uniform of the War of 1812.
There has only been one memorial service, held Memorial Day 2009 at the new city courthouse. Colored Burial Ground Commemoration Committee Member Fr. Bill Scafidi officiated over the service. Father Bill said at the time, “the decedents must be remembered and treated with dignity and honor.”
In 2009, City Assessor Rev. Steve Rhulke, who was also the cities Project Manager for the courthouse renovations, commented on some of the observations during renovations. He said, “The upper part of someone’s body was sticking out of the foundation” and that the people buried there must be remembered with dignity and we should “carry that in our hearts.”
Then Newburgh City Manager Jean-Ann McGrane said, “These findings present an opportunity for us, as a community, to come together to dignify and honor these forgotten people and this place that played an important part in our City’s history. We cannot change the past, but we can do everything possible to be sure that this time, the right thing is done.”
What is the right thing? McGrane promised the bodies would be brought back to Newburgh and placed on the ground from which they came “in a proper tribute.” The Committee came up with a plan to bring back the bones and had compiled several renderings of what a memorial may look like. However, it has been more than 13 years, and numerous city manager’s, that the bodies were exhumed and no clear date has been set for their return.
Some have floated the idea of placing the remains in a park, which by law is not allowed. Mayor Torrance Harvey has been quoted as saying, “There has to be a resting place agreed upon and brought forward by resolution to house those remains, to restore them back to the earth…”
Over the years, many of the area cemeteries have offered to house the remains, which Dickie Peterson, along with other committee members, were adamantly opposed to. He said at the time, “It’s bad enough that they were removed from their final resting place. The least we can do is bring them back as close to where they came from as possible.”
As we commemorate their legacies, we are acutely reminded that freedom is never free. Our fallen service members selflessly dedicated their lives to America: one nation, with liberty and justice for all.
The following, originally published in July of 2009, was written by the late Richard “Dickie” Peterson, Sr.
“My face is red with weeping and my eyes are ringed with red – Yet my hands are free from violence and my prayers are pure. – O earth do not cover my blood and never let my voice be quiet. – My heavenly witness and advocate sit on high.” – JOB 16:16-19
Let’s stretch our imagination to include the nameless, faceless people thrown aside, once dead as the waste product, of the expanding political economics, of unfettered capitalism. We sometimes see there anonymity, as an affirmation, of their suffering and confirmation of our total guilt. Histories tool to add volume and flesh, to describe inequities of a particular time, is rhetoric, public speaking and the written word. Many times these tools are not used, except to absolve one of hell fired guilt and eternal damnation. Case in point is two slavers:
1. The author of the Spiritual “Amazing Grace”, John Newton, whose pain was so great, reflecting on the overwhelming cruelty, he inflicted, on African Slaves transported, as a slave ship captain, to the Americas. This reaching out for absolution, his religious conversion on May 10, 1748, has become an anthem of many Black Churches.
a. Amazing grace how the sweet the sound that saved a wretch link me!
b. I once was lost, but now I’m found.
c. Was blind and now I see (to its near conclusion).
d. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil a life of joy and peace.
2. The other slaver and the spouse of a greater slaver, George Washington the acclaimed father of our country, in writing his own obituary a strange similarity when facing death, to John Newton, as he wrote with own hand; “Looking into the portals of eternity teaches that the brotherhood of man is inspired by God’s word, then all prejudice of race vanishes away.”
The conditions of this abuse, anonymity and invisibility are based one factor and that is the identifiable color of the skin of the abused. George Washington could not imagine with his self composed lasting, stone engraved obituary for eternity death gave a certain solace “Then all prejudice of race vanishes away.” Contemplating the gentle sleep of eternal rest, where the sin race will vanish, could Washington imagine the desecration in the interruption of that promise eternal rest, even for the discarded and abused.
The glaring contrast needs no added symbolism or greater contrast than to point your finger a hundred yards to the West from this point and see the eternal repose of Christian White Folks at rest, undisturbed, not violated and no sacrilege. These were the time peers of them that lie beneath us, who surrendered there eternal peace for the sake of progress. I can hear the muffled voices of them asking for justice, equity and commemoration.
President Barack Hussein Obama, stated last week; “Human history has often been a record of nations and tribes and yes religion – Subjugating on another in pursuit other own interest.
Yet this a new age such attitudes are self defeating.” Malcolm X stated that “Black People did not land on Plymouth Rock – Plymouth Rock landed on us.” A strange irony figurative and literally, is expanded here at this place and spot, this Courthouse has Landed, like it or not, on Black People. Justice a non inclusive entity or application to African-American Black people and to White People “Justice” simply meant “JUST US”. A lineal history of courts in the City of Newburgh has not been kind to African-American People. An 1878 Lynching of a Black Man who was in custody of armed police, at the court house on Second and Grand Street with a district attorney and judge present who surrendered the Black Man, to an enraged mob. The only interference was that of a St. Patrick’s Priest who was shoved aside and knocked to the ground and the mob proceeded to hang the man from a tree on the Court House Grounds.
This time of celebration should also be a time of healing. We have been blessed with caring and serious judges (One a man of Color – B. Harold Ramsey), who apply the law fairly, based on fact and the rule of law, and not the color of ones skin.
The calling out for, Dedication, should also be a plea for emancipation and freeing of the souls that lie trapped eternally below us. Abraham Lincoln said it best “We cannot Consecrate”, it’s already been blessed holy and in perpetuities scarred.
In all its glory the shame of the past will be forever linked to this edifice, identified now as the Newburgh Court House and to the meek and defenseless always the “Colored Burial Ground.” I close as I started with the word; HEBREWS 12:1 “Therefore we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses let us throw off everything that hinders and sin that entangles us…”