Categorized | Arts, Community

Understanding History: African-American Burial Traditions

Posted on 14 May 2013

UMass' Steve Mrozowski (right, foreground) and John Steinberg take the GPR unit on a test run before beginning a full survey of the African-American burial ground at Sylvester Manor in March.

University of Massachusett’s Steve Mrozowski (right) and John Steinberg take the GPR unit on a test run before beginning a full survey of the African-American burial ground at Sylvester Manor in March.

By Annette Hinkle

Cemeteries are a treasure trove of historic information. Names, dates, relationships, professions, property can all be gleaned by studying the gravestones and death records of those who lived long ago.

But what about historic African-American cemeteries? What sort of information can be found about the people who lie interred there?

Often precious little. That’s because many of these cemeteries lack markers and written records can be hard to find.

“A lot of African-American or minority cemeteries don’t look like others,” explains Georgette Grier-Key. “It’s a lack of stewardship in some cases, but another reason is because they were never designed to be this way.”

“People who kept records were literate, had influence and wanted to track what they owned,” she adds. “Many times the information was not there for blacks or poor people who couldn’t read.”

Whether the state of these sites is due to design or neglect, a great deal scholars have learned a great deal over the years. Grier-Key, director of the Eastville Community Historical Society, has organized a symposium at the Southampton Historical Museum this Saturday where speakers will address various aspects of African-American death rituals and customs. Among them will by Catherine D. Zarate who will discuss cultural differences in death traditions even today among African-Americans and Hispanics and Allison Manfra McGovern who will share details of the 17th century historic African American Burial Ground uncovered in New York City in the early 1990s.

Locally, the focus will be on the African-American burial ground at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island (which dates to the 1650s) and the Eastville Cemetery in Sag Harbor, founded in 1857 by the nearby A.M.E. Zion Church.

On a recent visit to the Eastville Cemetery, Michael Butler, a member of the Eastville Community Historical Society, noted that prior to the cemetery’s founding, African-Americans in Sag Harbor were typically buried in segregated sections of the Old Burying Ground and Oakland Cemetery.

“I think in 1857, the [A.M.E. Zion] church members decided it was time they had their own space,” says Butler. “We think there may have been graves here earlier, before the official founding of the cemetery. Some may have been under what is now the road. Unless we have ground penetrating radar, how would we know?

The cemetery, which was transferred from the church to the historical society in the 1980s, suffered from neglect and vandalism over the years which has made it difficult to know for certain how many people are buried there and who they are.

“We have done a count of about 90 names and 67 headstones — some headstones have more than one name — and some you can’t read. Some markers have disappeared over the years. Some may have fallen over and the sediment covered them.”

“We haven’t really done a topographical survey to see how things are positioned here,” he adds.

Fortunately, the historical society has received a $16,000 AIA (American Institute of Architects) research grant which will be used to make improvements to the cemetery.

“There is $10,000 for the first phase,” explains Butler. “We’ll resurvey the property and get the fencing in to secure the boundaries. The second year we’ll use $5,000 to create a cenotaph, a list of those you know are buried here but have no headstones. We have those records. We would like to have sign posts like what you might see on a trail, with the family listed.”

Butler adds that the third phase and the final $1,000 will be spent on whatever else needs to be done to complete the project. The historical society is also sponsoring an “adopt a grave” program to help with restoration work, such as the righting of toppled obelisk markers — including that of David Hempstead for whom the nearby street is named.

There were no streets to speak of when Sylvester Manor was founded on Shelter Island in 1651, and Maura Doyle, historic preservation coordinator at the manor, notes that many long-standing presumptions about the African-American cemetery there came from what she calls the “Cornelia Hornsworth era.”

Hornsworth, she explains, was the daughter who inherited the manor in 1903 and many of her ideals were formed by the times.

“It was the heyday of Colonial revivalism and the sinister side was a sharp reaction to waves of immigration then hitting America,” explains Doyle. “In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a big period of commemorating past events and people. In 1884, Cornelia and her father invited everyone to an unveiling of a memorial tablet at the other burial ground — the Quaker cemetery.”

But on the site where the manor’s slaves and local Manhasset tribe members were buried, a rough stone was inscribed commemorating the burial ground of the “colored people of Sylvester Manor since 1651.”

“It’s still there,” says Doyle.

But a lot more is now known about the site thanks to the archeological team from the University of Massachusetts who have spent years documenting the manor property and in mid-March brought ground penetrating radar to take a non-invasive look at the cemetery.

The UMass team is still in the process of interpreting the data, and though the cemetery has no headstones, Doyle notes this may have been intentional and keeping with burial traditions in western Africa.

“So many believed the underworld was accessed by a river, they would use white shells — the color for funerals — in the shape of a meandering river,” she says. “Anyone looking for headstones figured the lack of Christian monuments meant time had forgotten them.”

For her part, Doyle likes to believe the Sylvesters allowed their slaves to honor their dead as they chose.

“I want it to mean there were no headstones because those people didn’t want them,” she says. “In this one last act, departing the world, they were allowed to be culturally free to grieve, worship and send off this person as they wanted to.”

“But I don’t know,” she concedes.

“The Art and Archeology of Death in the African Diaspora” symposium is at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 18, 2013 at the Southampton Historical Museum, 17 Meeting House Lane, Southampton. Admission is $5. Call 283-2494 to reserve.

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