Earlier this year, the Kingston Land Trust and Harambee Coalition kicked off a fundraising campaign to preserve a long-forgotten African burial ground in Kingston, New York. I checked in with organizers for an update.
In February, Kingston Land Trust Executive Director Julia Farr walked me through the frozen backyard of a small home at 157 Pine Street. A January survey had proven to researchers what old city maps already detailed: the property was an African burial ground for some of the region’s first slaves, dating as far back as 1750. With the property in pre-foreclosure, Farr and the Harambee Coalition were knee-deep in bank negotiations and a $200,000 campaign to buy and protect the site.
“[We’re] thinking of this as the central site where people can come to pay respect and learn about the history," she explained.
And four months later, on a bright June morning, women’s group “Good Gourd” led over 130 neighbors and local leaders to the site to do just that. Farr watched as the group poured water over the burial ground, sanctifying it and meditating on its history. Reverend Evelyn Clarke, of the New Progressive Baptist Church, recognized its occupants for building the city of Kingston.
“For those who labored in the mills, 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," said Clarke.
Farr says it was an emotional moment, wrought with both mourning and relief. With nearly $150,000 raised, the Kingston Land Trust successfully purchased the site – the cemetery is safe. Farr says more than 20 businesses contributed to the campaign, in addition to the Trust itself. She says the light at the end of the tunnel was a combined $55,000 donation from Kingston’s Old Dutch Church and Scenic Hudson. Scenic Hudson Senior Vice President Steven Rosenberg was one of many supporters to speak at the site’s dedication.
“And so what the Kingston Land Trust, and Harambee, and you are doing today is tremendously important – not just here in Kingston, but nationally. I know that. And others will take notice," he assured.
Sure enough, Farr and Tyrone Wilson – of the Harambee Coalition – have been invited to share their story with land trusts across the country at a national conference in North Carolina in October. But the work’s not done. The Trust’s campaign is still trying to get all the way to $200,000, looking to turn the site into a historical center. Farr says most of that will go into shoring up the home.
“There are leaks and sort of battered walls and floors," Farr notes. "What the renovation will look like is repairing all of the fixtures that are broken, replacing the drywall, and painting and finishing the floors.”
Farr adds the Trust is accepting “in-kind” donations, and a number of local contractors, gardeners, and architects have already offered their services. Tyrone Wilson says he’d like to identify some of the people buried in the cemetery, and use the site to host a number of artifacts, programs, and research on African culture. He says many don’t realize how much African culture was forced into the shadows because of slavery.
“When they was taken from their land, they was presented into a whole other world that they wasn’t familiar with," Wilson explains. "How did they cope, how did they learn? How did they come together? They learned how to do this privately. They learned how to sing songs that gave messages – so we want to be able to tell that story.”
Wilson and Farr are setting up a team to collect community input and solidify a vision for the site over the next few months. While the cemetery was created out of division, Wilson says its preservation brought a community together.
“We take care of each other," he says. "And I’m hoping that when people look at this cemetery, and the history of this cemetery and how this came about, this is what they will see. They won’t see color. They will see just humans. People of a community working together.”
More information on the Pine Street African burial ground is at the Kingston Land Trust website.
This is part three of an ongoing story. Part two can be found here.