By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – “We can definitely hold people accountable,” Gabrielle Hill exclaimed into the megaphone, on the corner of Broadway and Robinson Avenue (9W) Sunday afternoon. “We weren’t part of the problem, but are definitely going to be part of the change.”
That problem, or as many referred to it as, “tragedy” traces back to 2008, where the spot right behind where Hill was talking to a concerned crowd of citizens, is the now Municipal Courthouse, formally known as The Broadway School. Fifteen years ago, that location was rehabilitated to become that courthouse; however, during the foundation excavation process a shocking discovery surfaced: human bones and skulls. Later investigation, led by City of Newburgh Historian, Mary McTamaney, revealed this was a colored burial ground. A full archaeological report was issued, and 106 bodies of men, women and children were exhumed and housed at S.U.N.Y. New Paltz, a place they still remain. Untold numbers of more bodies are speculated to exist at the site; however, no attempts to secure them have been made due to concerns about jeopardizing the structural integrity of the Courthouse.
“Basically, what they did when they built this Courthouse back in 1908, was knowingly pour concrete onto grave sites; the map plans all clearly show this,” said Jean Marc, an artist, who along with Hill and several others (formally called “From the Ground UP”), are involved in a concerted effort, led by a series of upcoming talks at the Anne Street Gallery centered upon how to memorialize these deceased as well as to ensure all of the bodies are relocated to a brand new site and that the original location of their burials receive a long overdue, much deserved Historical Marker Installation. According to Hill, this potent symbolic structure- showing some level of respect for the burial ground- is supposedly in the works. It’s something she recently pitched to the Newburgh City Council to take place on: November 4, 5, 11 or 12 at 3pm and is awaiting word back.
Hill, who has devoted many hours and energy to this “informal” project over the years, mentioned Downing Park as a very possible new location for the bodies. Although many in City government were supportive of this location, the Downing Park Conservancy remains unsure of whether their organization has the capacity to maintain the reinternment site at their park’s grounds. Money is another issue; large financial requirements are needed in order to see this process through to its end. Regardless of any deterrents, Hill and her supporters are intent on keeping the public informed of the very real reality of this issue as well as the insistence that justice is served to all whose bodies were discovered- and still exist- at this spot, right in the heart of the City of Newburgh.
“We want the City to know everyone knows about this,” said Hill. “Now, we want to figure out, the next steps to do with the remains. I saw the remains at New Paltz in 2020 where they have been since 2008, and they deserve to have a home; we need to correct this injustice, as it’s not their fault and deserve to have a ceremony, where there can be crying, healing and celebrating of their lives.” Reflecting further, while glancing behind her at the site, Hill added, “This was a tragedy; you see a sign for the Broadway School on this building, and you see a courthouse here, but what you don’t see is the very beginning of what was here: A colored burial ground that had people in it that were found.”
Kyle Conway, a teacher in the Newburgh School District, Vice-President of the Highland Falls-Newburgh NAACP, and someone involved in a similar project in the Town of Montgomery, was also adamant about the commitment to picking up the momentum and spreading the awareness on this crucial issue that involved real people, ones that mattered.
“This gives us an opportunity to honor people who didn’t get a chance to fight,” said Conway. “They were people who contributed to this country and deserve better.”
Next up for the group- “From the Ground UP,” centered upon the correction of this injustice, is a visit by sculptor, Vinnie Bagwell to the Ann Street Gallery, located at 104 Ann Street in the City of Newburgh, on October 21, 2023, at 3pm. Bagwell, who has worked on such pieces as the Harriet Tubman sculpture, which can be viewed at the Walkway, will be discussing potential artistic memorials that can be done to honor the African-Americans buried in the Newburgh Colored Burial Ground.