“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner’s famous sentiment has recently been proven true for a handful of Hudson Valley historians and researchers. Two groups — one working in Rhinebeck, the other in Kingston — have uncovered previously unknown information about vibrant African American communities that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their inhabitants included slaves, former slaves, veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and townspeople of both high and low stature. This unearthed past offers new information about the lives of African Americans in the Valley, and — at the same time — raises many questions that remain unanswered.
The Rhinebeck research was conducted by Vassar College students under the direction of professors Brian McAdoo and Quincy T. Mills. Last year, the Dutchess County Historical Society asked McAdoo, associate professor of earth science, to investigate Revolutionary War veteran Andrew Frazier. Frazier — a “landed” African American — owned a farm in Milan, an unusual circumstance at the time. He and his family were thought to have been buried in a portion of Rhinebeck Cemetery called “Section E.” This half-acre of land, also known as the “Negro Burial Ground,” was siven for the internment of “people of color” by Mary Garrettson, the daughter of a noted abolitionist preacher, in 1853.
Although a few monuments remain, most of the burial sites in Section E are now unmarked. McAdoo’s class took geophysical surveys of the site using high-tech tools that included electrical resistance, ground penetrating radar analysis, and something called cesium-vapor magnetometry — “a glorified metal detector,” says McAdoo. As they surveyed the site, the professor realized he was onto something bigger than a geologist could interpret. “Geophysicists are good at counting things, like the number of burial plots, but I don’t understand the important historical questions,” he admits. Fortunately, he ran into Mills at the Vassar gym, who does. An assistant professor of history, Mills focuses on African American urban and business history, racial segregation, and social and political movements. “I told him what I was doing, and invited him to participate in the research,” McAdoo says.
“I was teaching a class on African American history up to 1865, and I thought this would be a fine project for my students and make history come alive,” Mills says. “They jumped at the idea.” So while McAdoo’s class collected physical data, Mills’s students pored over deeds, land sales, birth and death certificates, and other records at the Dutchess County Clerk’s office and in the archives of Rhinebeck’s Starr Library. They learned that in the 1800s, the area had a more dynamic African American community than had been previously known. Besides the prosperity of the Frazier family in Milan, there was also a neighborhood of artisans who lived on Oak Street in the village of Rhinebeck.
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At peace: Kingston’s Mt. Zion African American Burial Ground (opposite) contains the remains of members of the U.S. Colored Infantry’s 20th Regiment
Photograph courtesy of Rebecca Martin
In Ulster County, the Kingston Land Trust (KLT) has begun investigating that area’s black history as well, focusing on two cemeteries in the city. The first, the Mt. Zion African American Burial Ground on South Wall Street, is owned by the A.M.E. Zion Church on Franklin Street, the oldest African American church in the county. Mt. Zion is known as the final resting place for the U.S. Colored Infantry’s 20th Regiment, a celebrated division of the Union Army during the Civil War. But its historical record is spotty, and the site has fallen into disrepair over the years. The KLT formed an African American History Committee to learn more about the cemetery, and to improve the grounds.
Their research has in turn led them to a second — and less well-known — site on South Pine Street. “I had always wondered about that cemetery,” says Rebecca Martin, executive director of the KLT. “It was gorgeous but had no markings. Even local historians didn’t know what it was.”
Martin and the KLT discovered that the Pine Street plot was actually an extension of the Mt. Zion cemetery. More significantly, it is “one of the earliest, and potentially largest slave cemeteries known in the Northeast,” according to a letter written by Joseph E. Diamond, an anthropologist who was hired to undertake an archeological survey for the city in 1993. The site was sold to a lumberyard in the 1900s; over time, many houses were built on the land. “In the 1990s, a guy who lived there had plumbing problems, broke though his floor, and found bones,” says Kevin McEvoy of the KLT. “The cemetery was sort of known, but never documented. It was a forgotten site.”
The deeds and records here are a tangle of confusion. He has learned, however, that slaves who died during the 1750s — many of whom had Dutch or French Huguenot names inherited from their owners — are buried there. The KLT is now attempting to match these past records with living descendants. “We’re hoping the local African American community will look into their own histories and records and help us tie all of this together,” he says. “We want to bring belated recognition of the important role that this key part of the local community has played since settlement times, and to continue the process and carry it forward by letting them tell their story.”
Similarly, the Rhinebeck researchers feel that their investigation of Section E is just a start. “There is so much we still don’t know,” says McAdoo, who would like to continue this foray into history when time allows. (He is currently busy studying the geophysics of tsunamis. “Unfortunately, it’s a good time for tsunami research,” he says.) Historian Mills, however, will keep digging. “All this information needs to be mined in greater detail,” he says. “We know very little about free black families and how they navigated Dutchess County in that time period. It’s important to know more about the people who struggled and fought just miles from where you live. That’s what civic engagement is all about.”
Healing & Remembering
The Mt. Zion African American Burial Ground Rededication Ceremony takes place on Sunday, June 5, at 3 p.m. at the site on South Wall Street in Kingston. “There will be speakers and members of the families of those buried here,” says Rebecca Martin, executive director of the Kingston Land Trust. “But it will also be understated out of respect for the history here.”
For more information, call the Kingston Land Trust at 845-877-LAND (5263) or visit www.kingstonburialgrounds.wordpress.com or www.kingstonlandtrust.org/category/african-american-burial-grounds