The two sites are a key to the African-American history of Kingston, and they are finally getting their due, thanks to the Kingston Land Trust and city historian Edwin Ford. The KLT is pursuing local landmark status for the Pine Street Burial Ground (the Mount Zion Cemetery was landmarked by the city in 1987). The group is also applying to have both cemeteries, along with a third site, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (founded in 1848 and the city’s oldest organized black congregation) listed on the state and national registers of historic places.
After sponsoring a tour to both sites last August, the KLT, partnering with the AME Church, formed an African-American history committee and organized a tour for State Historic Preservation Office (SHPA) rep William Krattinger, who agreed the sites were worthy of preservation. Then came the challenge: producing a deed for the Mount Zion Cemetery, which SHPA requires.
The AME Mt. Zion Church provided KLT vice chair and treasurer Kevin McEvoy with a copy of a certificate of incorporation of the Mount Zion Cemetery Association, dated April 27, 1891. McEvoy has been combing the county archives to locate the original document. He has also been researching the Pine Street ground, in an effort to establish its exact boundaries, and is compiling a chronology for the two cemeteries and the church. The information will eventually be posted on a website the KLT has put up on the burial ground, http://kingstonburialgrounds.wordpress.com.
All three projects involve sorting through a confusing paper trail. McEvoy, who’s done title work professionally, said deciphering the old deeds is a challenge. “It gets more confusing when the deeds are older and they used chains and links [to establish a property’s boundary].” Adding to the confusion is the fact that “Kingston has a perennial problem with its directionals. North Front Street faces north, but it sort of faces west. The problem goes back to Peter Stuyvesant,” who laid out the stockade and its grid of streets circa 1660 at an angle. Despite the difficulty, McEvoy said he hopes to have completed the SHPA application by late spring.
The burial ground, rediscovered
Back in the early 1990s, Ford, who had acquired a copy of the Beers 1870 map of Kingston and was intrigued by the “coloured burial ground” notation that accompanied a lot on Pine Street, alerted SUNY professor of anthropology Joseph Diamond about the site. Diamond had been hired by the City of Kingston to undertake a Phase 1A archaeological survey of the city, funded by a state grant. Diamond was excited by Ford’s discovery, and after researching the site — he subsequently wrote an extensive article on his findings, published in 2006 in Volume 35 of Northeast Historical Archaeology; it’s posted on the KLT website — determined that it potentially could be as significant as the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, which was unearthed in 1993.
The Pine Street Burial Ground, which roughly measures 70 feet by 225 feet and could hold the bodies of hundreds of slaves and freed blacks, dates from 1750 to 1878 (although Diamond wrote it’s likely slaves were buried there much earlier). According to his article, it was originally located south of the city limits in land known as the armbowery, commonly held land where the poorer segment of the populace kept gardens and pastured animals. Diamond wrote that it was possible there were originally small blue headstones, probably without inscriptions. His article also notes that the 1790 census counted 2,906 slaves in Ulster County, comprising about a tenth of the population.
In 1884 the lot was acquired by Henry Palen, who operated a lumber yard on the premises and built sheds over the cemetery; an historical account notes three or four gravestones were still standing at this time. By then the city had spilled over its boundaries and was laying out streets and lots in the armbowery.
However, something else happened, information that was just discovered by McEvoy in the course of his research and casts a light on the black community of the time. Before Palen bought the burial ground, it was acquired by Henry C. Rosencrans, an African-American collector and historian who had a shop at John and Wall and was the descendant of slaves for a Dutch family. McEvoy made the discovery by matching a name that appeared in a deed with the account of Rosencrans in Sylvester’s History of Ulster County, published in 1880.
When the city announced its intention to sell off the cemetery, “people from the African-American community spoke at a remonstrance and weren’t happy,” McEvoy said. “After the public hearing, Rosencrans purchased it. In effect, the African-American community bought it back.” Rosencrans owned the property for six or seven years, until 1876.
Today, over half of the cemetery is believed to lie beneath the house and yard at 159 Pine St., which retains the rough outline of the cemetery seen on old maps. Although the property has never been excavated — Diamond expressed interest in doing this a decade ago, but members of the black community felt it would desecrate the site — some bones have turned up.
In 1996, the owner of the concrete block building next door showed Diamond and Ford a box of bones which he had uncovered while doing excavation work under the cellar. They were taken to the police, who passed them onto a forensic anthropologist, who identified them as African-American (they were later reburied in Mount Zion Cemetery).
Ford was hopeful that Brian McAdoo, a professor at Vassar College who has taken underground images of historic cemeteries in Dutchess County using special equipment, could capture images of the coffins and bones at Pine Street Burial Ground. However, McEvoy said McAdoo had visited the site but said that there were technical difficulties, caused by the overhead electrical wires and compacted soil, which could prevent his machine from getting good readings. Obtaining legal access to the site might also be a problem.
Future of the site
KLT Executive Director Rebecca Martin said the main focus of the KLT’s efforts to preserve the site is the historic designation. She said the research undertaken by McEvoy will also be a significant contribution, adding to the public’s knowledge and awareness of local black history.
The city historian, however, said he hoped the site itself, or a portion of it, could be preserved for the public. Ford noted that back when Diamond was doing his archaeological survey, the stucco house was for sale. A community group attempted to buy it, in an effort to conserve the burial ground, but was unable to raise the necessary funds. Now it will likely be available again; recently 159 Pine St. was in foreclosure, until the owner filed for bankruptcy. (The concrete block building next door is also for sale.)
In 1996, after Diamond had written a letter to the mayor noting the historic significance of the burial ground, the Division of Building and Safety Division sent letters to the owners of the two lots and adjacent properties notifying them of the burial ground and prohibiting any digging, but “that’s not an official ruling,” according to Ford. At the very least, Ford would like a deed restriction on the property. Ideally, it would be acquired by the city and operated by a non-profit as a museum, with a park-like preserve in the back. “At least there should be a plaque,” he said.
Before even being recognized for its historic value, the Pine Street Burial Ground was at risk of disappearing, for good. Diamond’s article describes how in the early 1990s, the owner of the property had successfully obtained a variance from the city to construct a parking lot on the premises. However, she refused to undergo a State Environmental Quality Review Assessment for the property, as required by state law, and instead put the property on the market, which is when the community group tried to purchase it.
New sign for Mount Zion Cemetery
The Mount Zion Cemetery, which is believed to be owned by the AME Zion Church (as noted, McEvoy is researching the incorporation papers), is located on land that in the 1850s was a desolate wilderness on the edge of the city, in contradistinction to the beautifully landscaped grounds of Montrepose Cemetery.
Since the early 1980s, Clyde Broadhead and Joe Forte, World War II veterans who belong to the Kingston Veterans Association, have voluntarily maintained the grounds, righting fallen gravestones and removing trash. In recent years Joe’s son William has taken over the job. On occasion, the city helps out; Bill Forte said when a huge tree recently came down near the entranceway, the mayor had it removed. Forte often gets the Boy Scouts to assist during the annual clean-ups, and he still relies on his father’s guidance in maintaining the tombstones. And every year, the KVA has a ceremony, Forte said.
The Kingston Veterans Association has just erected a new blue sign at the entrance, which finally properly identifies the cemetery (Lowe’s donated some of the building materials). Forte said he’s happy about KLT’s effort to have the site designated a state landmark. “It would mean those people buried here can rest forever. It won’t be dug up as a housing development.”
On June 5, the KLT will hold a rededication cemetery of the Mount Zion Cemetery, with new landscaping of the front grounds, choirs, and children’s activities.
Forte, who spent 21 years in the U.S. Army, said he knows some of the families of the dead. “The majority of people buried in that cemetery are either veterans or family members of veterans. They were pretty much ignored primarily because of the color of their skin, which is why they were put away in the hills,” he said. “I don’t think anybody should leave this earth and be totally forgotten.”