Inaugural celebration at the African American Cemetery inspires reflection
By John Donegan
This story originally appeared in the 6/23/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.
This past Saturday, June 19, Americans observed the country’s newest federal holiday: Juneteenth. President Joe Biden signed legislation the Thursday prior establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, the first since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.
The annual holiday commemorates the end of slavery in the United States and has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s. In recent years, particularly following nationwide protests over police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, there is a renewed interest in the day.
Whereas many municipalities nationwide held events ranging from rallies to taking moments of reflection, Rye Town officials, local leaders, residents and members of the Friends of the African American Cemetery—a nonprofit led by its founder Dave Thomas—used the day to mark the reopening of the African American Cemetery. Together, they walked among the graves located adjacent to the Greenwood Union Cemetery in Rye, located at 215 North St., on Saturday and reflected on the site and its history. Thomas also commemorated the day in honor of John Reavis, Jr. and Doris Bailey-Reavis, who died in June 2020 and Feb. 5, 2021, respectively.
“Juneteenth is an amazing, historical event. It marked the end of slavery in the United States forever and the beginning of reconstruction and a national healing that extends to this very day,” Thomas, a Port Chester resident, said at the start of the day. “It coincides with what we’re doing here so perfectly.”
Thomas began researching the grounds in 2010. He found that before the Town of Rye took it over in the 1990s, the cemetery was rich with local history but also bamboo and brush. He organized annual cleanups with local Scout groups and worked with them on Eagle Scout projects to wash the gravestones and maintain the landscaping, though he was not able to fix any of the historic headstones that had split or been buried by time.
“That’s the thing about this site—it was all hidden before; no one knew about it,” Thomas said. “When I first came here, I was like, ‘this unbelievable, how did this happen here?’ But when you go through the stories of the people here—these are all freed African Americans who lived in Westchester County for over 200 years.”
Until last week, many of the gravestones were in disrepair. Stone mason apprentices through a job development program with the Manhattan-based World Monuments Fund completed a week-long restoration project at the site on Friday, June 18, just in time for the ceremony. Over 75 burial markers were repaired.
“I want them to come back,” Thomas laughed. “But that’s up to them. Their efforts here are just phenomenal.”
The fund also offered to do a survey of the site, to scan for unmarked burials.
“The Town would be happy to participate in that venture because we believe there are many bodies buried here without markers,” said Rye Town Supervisor Gary Zuckerman. “We would like to have a map of where everybody is buried.”
Also among those in attendance at the Juneteenth celebration were several descendants of the deceased. One woman, Carol Ubosi, came from Maryland for the event.
Ubosi was born in Port Chester’s United Hospital, though her family moved to New Rochelle when she was young. She later moved to Silver Springs, Md., where she worked as a high school teacher. She pointed out several ancestors in the cemetery, including Imogene Bell, a great aunt she never knew she had.
“I came here when I was girl and I remember my mother would indicate that there were other ancestors buried here, but we had no clue who they were and their story until I discovered the letters,” said Ubosi. “So when I retired, I came out here to see it and start (researching) my family history and I could hardly get through this area.”
She traced her family origins back to the African American Cemetery in 2011. According to Ubosi, her parents took a trunk back to their place in New Rochelle that they found when clearing out her grandfather’s house. Inside, Ubosi found 210 letters—correspondence between her great aunt and her lover, Gilbert Peterson.
The letters chronicle the couple’s lives; they met in Northford, Conn., and wrote to one another until their marriage in 1886. Bell, according to the letters, became sick and died in 1888 in a hospital in Harrison. She died on what would become Ubosi’s birthday.
When Ubosi began going to the cemetery in the 1950s, they only visited her grandmother’s grave, never knowing that other ancestors rested not 50 feet away.
“I never knew that because this stone was so cluttered,” Ubosi said. “It wasn’t until two years ago when I found her death certificate that I was able to find it out.”
Along with the letters, she found a stack of newspaper articles and ledgers of the Colored Union Benevolent Association, a black fraternal organization that had branches in Port Chester, Harrison and White Plains. The group, during its 85-year run between 1838-1923, paid the medical bills and for the subsequent burial of its members through dues, sort of like health insurance. Ubosi said some of the names on the ledgers matched the names of those in the cemetery.
“I’ve got these ledgers and I’ve got to find out what to do with them,” Ubosi said. “They have a lot of names and even the minutes in the meetings, who was there, who paid and how much. I believe there is a connection with these names in the cemetery here and the names in the ledger.”
She wants to present them to the Westchester Historical Society and see if they will help uncover many of the missing buried at the site.
On the other side of the Bell and Peterson graves is the gravesite of Samuel Bell, a Civil War soldier in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Many veterans from the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II are buried at the African American Cemetery.
“(The cemetery) marks a sad chapter in American history when African Americans could not be buried with their White brethren even though they served in the same wars,” Supervisor Zuckerman said. “The fact that you have been able to participate with the World Monuments Fund to restore the headstones and maintain the space brings us full circle in showing that that community deserves equality of treatment.”
For now, Thomas and his wife Joan, a Port Chester village trustee, believe cemetery advocates have done well to preserve the land, but they still have much more work ahead.
Though the cemetery has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003, it has not qualified for capital project grants. Thomas believes through a potential federal bill still pending in Congress, the African American Burial Grounds Network Act, that vision could be realized.
The bill would create a loose network of burial grounds that exist throughout the country and authorize the U.S. Department of the Interior to conduct a comprehensive study of the Black gravesites in that network. With the study, researchers would be better linked through a nationwide database of Black cemeteries and would have easier access to grant funding.
“Many of the grants we see are for programmatic activities and not necessarily for capital projects to sustain it,” Thomas said. “Yet, that’s where the heavy lifting comes.”
While making Juneteenth an official holiday is a positive step, those in attendance at the African American Cemetery celebration made it clear the work is not complete. Issues of racism, police brutality and school shootings still fill the news every day.
“There is now this glow, such a brightness now, that I hadn’t seen before,” Thomas said. “The vision was always for this to be a place of reflection and education. Many people don’t recognize the history in their own backyard.”