The Kingston Land Trust is leading a $200,000 fundraising campaign to purchase and protect a historic African burial ground in Kingston, New York.
From the street, you’d never guess that 157 Pine Street holds a piece of history. But the 1915 home is the site of an African burial ground believed to have been used for some of the area’s first slaves. With the property in pre-foreclosure, the Kingston Land Trust and area coalition Harambee are fighting to protect the land. Julia Farr is executive director of the Land Trust:
“They set an auction date for the property, and when we saw that, we jumped into action," says Farr. "And we asked them to pull it from the auction, alerting them that it was an African burial ground – letting them know that the community was tracking on this, and that it would be in their best interest to work with the Kingston Land Trust to sell it to us as a short sale.”
The short sale, plus maintenance for the house and property, would cost an estimated $200,000. Harambee Executive Director Tyrone Wilson says the group hopes to turn the site into a memorial and historical center.
“There is a house on the front of the property which we are looking to make it a mini-museum for the public to come and visit and learn about who’s buried there, and a little more about the city of Kingston," Wilson says.
SUNY New Paltz anthropology professor Joseph Diamond was part of a group that conducted a ground pulse radar, or GPR, survey at the site in January. GPR surveys the ground without disturbing it, helping visualize which areas of the soil are intact, and which have been disturbed. Lit-up lines on the survey depict what Diamond calls “anomalies” in the soil, 1.2 meters down.
“And these are probably burials," Diamond directs. "You can see a row right there of burials, and you can see a row here that’s – these folks are all on the east-west axis, these people are on the north-south – so that’s at 1.2."
Diamond has been interested in the burial ground for some time. The property actually pops up as “the colored burying-ground” on Kingston city maps dating as far back as the 1700s. Using an 1870s Beers Map, Diamond finally set out with historian Edwin Ford to find the cemetery in 1990.
“And we kept counting off the number of houses and walking back and up and down the street," says Diamond. "At that point, one of the local residents came out to ask us what we were doing, and we were saying, ‘We’re looking for a graveyard.’ And he said, ‘Hold on a second’ – and he went back in and got a box of human remains that he found underneath his bathroom floor when he was doing some plumbing.”
The remains were taken to the Onondaga County Medical Examiner’s Office, found to be of African-American origin, and reburied in Kingston’s Mount Zion Cemetery. An interested buyer hoped to turn the burial ground into a parking lot in 1996 – and that’s when the Kingston African-American Burial Ground Project formed to protect it. While the group did stop the parking lot plans, Diamond says it failed to buy and fully protect the property.
“We had a hard time getting a designation as a not-for-profit, and we also had a hard time raising money, and we also had a very difficult time getting other groups in the city of Kingston to line up with us," Diamond explains.
The group also had a tough time proving that the cemetery even existed. Historical records aside, Diamond and Co. didn’t have GPR in the 1990s – and the lot at 157 Pine Street looks like any other backyard. There are no headstones, at least above ground, indicating who’s buried there. I toured the site with Harambee’s Tyrone Wilson, who says one goal of the current project is to dive into the city’s history, and recognize some of the cemetery’s occupants.
“I’m also thinking about doing – once we find the real placement – doing some reconstructed headstones," Wilson says. "We maybe can’t put the exact dates of death, obviously, but we maybe can put the date of their existence here.”
Looking at historical records, Diamond dates the burial ground’s use from 1750 until its status as a private lumber yard in 1878. He estimates it contains the remains of hundreds of people.
“It probably extends from Pine Street almost over to Fair Street, which is a full city block," says Diamond. "And it probably is much larger than what it’s showing on the 1875 Beers Map, because we do know that, to the north, there have been human remains found underneath two houses to the north.”
Right now, the Kingston Land Trust is solely interested in 157 Pine Street. In addition to donating $40,000 of its own funds to the cause, the Trust has raised over $23,000 as of February 27. Julia Farr says the Trust is negotiating with a bank to extend its March due date for the funds, and has also been speaking with the city about the situation. Mayor Steve Noble says he supports efforts to protect the property.
“Having an unmarked burial ground in our city that has been forgotten about for way too many years really has an opportunity now to be turned into a really great community resource – but also to be able to make sure that those that are buried there are treated with respect," says Noble. "And, you know, we’re looking into all of our different options as to how we can support the efforts of the Kingston Land Trust.”
More information about the campaign can be found at the Kingston Land Trust website.