About 400 years ago, the first Africans were brought to North America as slaves. All these years later, proof of that history struggles to be seen. Now in New York’s Hudson Valley, the Kingston Land Trust is leading a campaign to purchase and protect a residential property thought to be a historic African burial ground. I toured the site on a windy day with the Trust’s executive director, Julia Farr.
“So this is the site that, in the historic maps, you can see is the burial ground," directs Farr. "And we did the ground penetrating radar right in this area here, and that’s where you can see the results that show all of the burials lined up – so all of the graves that are there.”
Julia Farr is describing a survey done at 157 Pine Street that confirmed for researchers what historical maps already detailed: that it was an African burial ground, used for the area’s first slaves. With the property now in pre-foreclosure, the Kingston Land Trust and Harambee Coalition are trying to raise $200,000 to buy the site and turn it into a historical center. The century-old house would act as a mini-museum, while a side lot could be a community garden. The backyard, where Farr and I stand, would be a formal memorial.
“The graveyard, according to the maps, extends into the lot behind there, and then maybe a little bit past the fence line into the other properties," Farr directs.
While researchers and historians have estimated that the burial ground could span a neighborhood block, Farr says the Trust is focused on 157 Pine Street, and making the burial ground a part of the surrounding community.
"[We're] thinking of this as the central site where people can come to pay respect and learn about the history," Farr says.
While efforts in the 1990s to protect 157 Pine Street reminded the city of what the property contains, the site is largely urban legend. Monique Tinsley grew up in the area, right around the corner from the burial ground, and didn’t know a thing at the time.
“I know a bunch of people like, working in the nursing field and taking care of the older people. As they got older, they started talking," says Tinsley. "And telling, ‘You know, back in the day, this and this.’ And we’re like ‘OK,’ and it wasn’t until we started becoming a little bit older – 18, in your twenties, some of us thirties – that everybody started putting the stories together.”
Farr and Tyrone Wilson – of the Haramabe Coalition – say some neighbors found out about the cemetery after discovering human remains in their backyards. And yet Lorraine Skinner is very surprised she didn’t learn about 157 Pine Street sooner.
“My son actually used to live here with his girlfriend, and we never knew that. They just moved out like, a couple months ago," Skinner says.
Odell Winfield of the African Roots Library says the cemetery’s story begins with the founding of Kingston. The community started as Wildwyck in the 1650s, within a fortified stockade. It became Kingston in 1664, and the first capital of New York in 1777 – the same year British troops nearly burned it to the ground. But Winfield says the history of slavery in the community is not as well known.
“These were small farmers that owned one or two people, human beings, and most of the vegetables that were grown in the Hudson Valley were shipped back down toward the city," says Winfield. "And New York was probably the second-largest state or area at the time that owned slaves outside of Georgia or Alabama.”
Historical records confirm the cemetery’s usage as far back as 1750, but Winfield says it likely started earlier.
“The Church denied Africans to be buried in their cemeteries, so they had to create a space where Africans could be buried. And they did it outside of the stockade of Wildwyck," says Winfield.
As Wildwyck, and then Kingston, expanded, the surrounding area was portioned off to private owners. 157 Pine Street became a lumber yard, and burials likely moved to sites like the Mount Zion Cemetery nearby around 1878. Jessieca McNabb, who grew up in the neighborhood, says the Pine Street burial ground shouldn’t be forgotten.
"It's important for our young — everyone, but especially the young children of color — to know that there was something here before them, know that they have worth," says McNabb. "Everybody wasn't a slave here. You know, we helped build Kingston, too...But they need to know that this is not just black history — this is history."
Harambee’s Tyrone Wilson says he would like to try to identify those who rest at Pine Street. Harambee plans to run the history center if the protection efforts are successful.
“We plan on connecting with the high school, some of the college’s students, to come out and help with the research and you know, just explore and be a part of it," Wilson says.
Monique Tinsley and Jessieca McNabb are concerned over a lack of community support so far, but think building a historical center will bring the neighborhood together, and teach future generations.
“I have grandchildren, and it would be so nice for them to see and come back and know the history because, like Jessieca said, they teach us a lot in school, but they don’t teach us the whole part of the history – it’s only parts," says Tinsley. "And [the whole story is] the only way the story should be told…And it would be joyous to see.”
Mayor Steve Noble says he supports the protection efforts. The Kingston Land Trust has raised over $63,000 as of February 27, and is trying to extend its March deadline for the funds.
More information on the campaign can be found at the Kingston Land Trust website.
Part one of this story can be found here.