Courthouse Burial Ground

 

Burial Ground Discovered

The area occupied by the Broadway School, its parking area and a portion of Robinson Avenue was designated as a burial ground for persons of African descent in the 19th Century. When the school was built and the street extended a century ago, excavations uncovered human remains. According to newspaper records in the late 1800s and 1908, remains were to be relocated to two sites: the so-called Alms House burial ground located at Snake Hill on City-owned property, and at Woodlawn Cemetery on Union Avenue, a private facility. It is unknown how many individuals were actually moved, and how many were left in the burial ground.

Excavations in March 2008 uncovered skeletal human remains from three individuals. These remains were remanded to the Orange County Medical Examiner’s office, which determined that they came from a historic cemetery.

In general, the responsibilities of a local municipality for an abandoned burial ground and the accompanying legal procedure are described in General Municipal Law Section 164.

Courthouse Burial Ground Working Group

Mindful of the historical and cultural significance of the site and of the need to appropriately re-inter and commemorate the remains found, a group of clergy and members of community, with City officials and staff, held public meetings between March and May 2008 to create a plan to define and carry out this important responsibility.

City Decides Next Steps

[Press Release, June 11, 2008]

In the last couple of weeks, the remains of 11 more individuals have been found at the courthouse construction site on the grounds of the former Broadway School, where part of an African-American cemetery was once located. This brings the total to date to 17.

With input from the Courthouse Burial Ground Working Group, the City has decided that all those who are found will be removed until they can be re-interred at a later date on the grounds of the new courthouse.

At their first meeting, the Working Group formed subcommittees for research and site documentation, spiritual healing, and commemoration of the site, and plans are being developed for the creation of this final resting place and memorial, and for a community ceremony to honor those interred on the site.

Douglas Mackey of the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), Dirk Marcucci of Landmark Archeology, and Dr. Kenneth C. Nystrom, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at SUNY New Paltz have been advising City officials and the Working Group.

Dr. Nystrom is taking temporary custody of remains until construction is finished, and it is expected that he will also receive those previously sent to the Medical Examiner’s office. In addition, the New York State Museum has offered their assistance if needed.

The first three sets of remains found in late March were sent to the Medical Examiner’s office. Upon receiving confirmation that they came from a historic burial ground, and after conferring with SHPO, the City sought an archeological firm to oversee excavations. On May 1, three more sets were found under the supervision of Landmark Archeology, and secured on site until the City met with SHPO and the advisory group.

Prior to the removal of remains, members of the advisory group spirituality subcommittee and local clergy have gathered at the site, along with City officials, staff and representatives from the archeological team, for a brief ceremony to recognize those who have been found, and those who are working with them.

As recommended by SHPO, the City is moving forward with excavation of the parking lot area in a systematic way to locate as many graves as possible — how many that will be is unknown.

“We do not want future generations to have to revisit this, and to wonder as we have, why this historic burial ground, and those buried here, received so little respect,” said City Manager Jean-Ann McGrane. “We cannot undo the wrongs of the past, but we can do the right thing now to insure that all those interred here rest with the dignity and honor they deserve.”

Rev. Stephen Ruelke, who is also City Assessor and liaison with the courthouse project said, “It is indeed important that we do justice here. I awoke this morning with the words of Ezekiel ringing in my ear. The part about where God takes Ezekiel to the valley of the dry bones and asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel demurred, saying something to the effect of “Lord, only you know.”

“Now here we are about 2,800 years after Ezekiel, and by Grace, we have found friends who had been forgotten, buried under asphalt and concrete and such in their own valley. God asks and the bones speak to us…they live…they call us to be God’s compassion, and in so doing, to become more fully alive ourselves,” Rev. Ruelke concluded.