I have started and stopped this post a hundred times in the last few months. I have struggled to find the words to type, the best way to approach this very delicate issue. I have written angry versions and depressing versions. Striking the right balance has been difficult. Some of you may find my words troublesome, but in the spirit of the late Rep. John Lewis, I will write them anyway because I think it is good trouble, necessary trouble.
This is a story that delves deeper into those tangled roots of racism right here in Cheshire, a single aspect of the dehumanization and disregard of the Africans who were once held in captivity here in Cheshire and their descendants. It is the story of how the area in which these men, women, and children were laid to rest was deemed empty by the Hillside Cemetery Association so they could make more money by reselling plots to our friends, families, and neighbors.
As you read this long post please know that I am not trying to be divisive. I understand that my words here will cause pain to some families, but that is truly not my intent, and if I could find a way to avoid doing so, especially in these times I would. But these words must be written and the truth must be spoken.
My hope for this post is that you, the reader, will be as appalled as I am and that you will call for change. A change in leadership within the Hillside Cemetery Association and a change in their policies. That they will acknowledge that this area is already full of burials and immediately cease and desist burying anyone new. That in ending burials in this section they may also make amends to the families impacted by their poor decisions, and that means all of the families, not just the ones who have been buried over the last 40 years. And finally, I hope that my readers can begin to see all of the small ways in which systemic racism is present in our lives.
Hiding the History of Hillside Cemetery
The area in yellow is the African Burying Place, and had only 4 headstones remaining by the early 1980’s
In the northeast corner of the old section of Hillside Cemetery is a roughly quarter-acre area that was used as the African Burying Place until at least 1935. More than 100 men, women, and children of African descent are buried here. A small few have stones, like Prince and Lucy Freeman, while some have nothing more than “a negro child” scrawled into Rev. Samuel Hall’s record of burials. There are at least two Revolutionary War soldiers buried here, Ruel Africa and Sharp Liberty, who were recognized with a plaque on the stone entry arch by the Lady Fenwick Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Rhoda and her son Hampton are buried here and it’s likely that her husband Dick Bristol is here too. But make no mistake that they, and many others, are buried here.
So what is the problem you ask? It is that there are a bunch of more modern burials here too. There is the husband of one of my mom’s oldest friends and the paternal grandparents, aunts, and uncles of my maternal cousins. In the 1980s the Hillside Cemetery Association decided that this area was empty and began to sell plots. Never mind that in the center of this section were four stones that belonged to Prince Freeman and his wife Lucy (d. 1831 & 1833); Prince’s son Henry Peter Freeman (d. 1882); Henry’s second wife Flora (d. 1880); and Henry’s grandson, Lewis Freeman (d. 1935). Clearly there were already some people here.
If I am in a generous mood, I will accept the association’s explanation that they were unaware of previous burials. But then I remember that more than 10 years ago, one of the Hillside Cemetery Association board members that I had known when I was a child, informed me that they had stopped selling plots in this section because they uncovered human remains every time they dug a new grave! What?? And they didn’t stop after the first time? No, they kept selling plots and digging new graves knowing that THERE WERE ALREADY PEOPLE BURIED HERE.
For the briefest moment, generous me will believe that the association tried to act in a responsible manner and tried to figure out who was buried in this section. I might even be willing to believe that they were unaware of the Hale Collection, a project created in the 1930’s to help put people to work during the Depression, that recorded every grave in every cemetery in Connecticut. But since this is a record of the burials in the cemetery that they manage, maybe I shouldn’t be so generous. Plus the Cheshire Public Library and the Historical Society each have copies of these records so they aren’t hard to find. A quick look at this section would have showed that in that “unmarked” area there were:
Stake # 61
Stake # 25
Stake # 26
Stake # 27
Stake # 28
Civil War marker # 7
Stake # 8
Civil War marker # 9
Stake # 10
Stake # 40
Stake # 12
Stake marked A.W.
Stake marked C
Stake # 8
Henry P. Freeman
Stake (number gone)
Stake # 20
Stake # 6
Stake # 17
Footstone marked L.B.
Stake # 30
If they had seen this they would have known there were at least 24 people were buried in this area. Or maybe they did know who was buried here and just didn’t care? What happened to the records that correspond to the stake #’s? I was told they had no records whatsoever, but then again I had just informed them this was the African Burying Ground and questioned why they were still burying people on top of other people. I suppose if they did have records that showed there really were people already buried there they might not want to share them.
Even so, did they think Prince Freeman, a name that is uniquely African American, and his family were the only burials in this section? Did they ever wonder why they might be segregated in this corner of the cemetery by themselves? Or did they know who Prince was, or at least have an idea of who he was, and decide that he and his family didn’t matter? That for all intents and purposes, based on who was buried here, that this was empty ground? I really don’t want to think poorly of the association. I really don’t want to believe that they could have intentionally reused this area because of who was buried there, but…
Once they dug up bones why did they keep selling plots? Why did they keep burying people here?
Did they ever inform people that there were already people buried in that spot they picked out for themselves or their loved ones? Were people ever given a choice? I mean how hard is it to say “Well that’s a great spot, but we just need to let you know there are already people buried here, and it’s possible that you or your loved one will be buried on top of someone else. We have some great plots on the other side of the cemetery where there have been no previous burials. Would you be interested in seeing one of those plots?”
Why does this matter?
To those who might say it doesn’t matter because they are long dead and that no one even remembers them, I remember, their families remember. Rhoda’s great-great-great-grandchildren remember. The Naaman family remembers, the Rue and the DuBois families remember. It doesn’t matter if it was Sambo who was buried in 1735 or Geraldine Evans who was buried in May 1920, they deserve to lie in peace.
Henry Gautier Freeman, son of Henry and Amelia Freeman, and father of Lewis, died Oct. 31, 1885 at the age of 59 and was buried at Hillside on Nov. 1.
And what about those families? When the gravedigger saw human bones coming out of the ground as a new grave was dug, did they stop for a second to think about how that person’s family might feel knowing their loved one was being dug up? Did the association ever stop to consider how those families might feel knowing the final resting place of their loved ones was being resold? Or did their feelings simply not matter?
I know some of the family members of people buried there. They are saddened, horrified, and angry. They have not forgotten their ancestors or the struggles they faced in life, and are rightly angry over the disrespect and dehumanization they have faced in death.
THIS is racism. THIS is the dehumanization of the “other”. It is, in some ways, a continuation of what Cheshire started almost 300 years ago. In earlier days, this quarter-acre area contained the town pound, an enclosure where stray animals were held. Imagine burying your loved one with stray horses and cows a few feet away. Think about the smell that must’ve wafted from the pound as you said goodbye to your loved ones. There was a reason the white folks didn’t bury their loved ones in this section, but they were perfectly fine burying the black folks here. Talk about dehumanizing.
If you find yourself thinking this is bad but it really doesn’t affect me, it’s not my family buried there, know that this has happened in cemeteries across the United States. The Washington Post recently ran a story about a historically black Washington, DC that had been dug up and relocated in the 1960’s to make way for expansion. Problem was that some of the bodies weren’t actually moved and the headstones, instead of being moved with the bodies, were hauled off as scrap and ended up dumped in the Potomac River. Dr. Michael Blakey, who worked with my mentor Dr. Warren Perry on the African Burial Ground in New York City was quoted in the article saying:
It is dehumanizing. Racism is about dehumanizing people so that they can be dealt with without empathy…This is just another manifestation of a knee on the neck for eight minutes or a body left in the middle of a street for four hours.
You may be asking how, apart from the markers that stood there in the 1930s, do I know that there are really people buried there. Several years ago, I happened to know of a grave being dug in that section. Being a student of Dr. Perry and having studied the African Burial Ground project that he and Dr. Blakey worked on, I went to investigate and document the previous burial that I knew would be there. Sure enough, about three feet down was a clear black organic layer, this was the decayed remains of a human being. The soil above this layer was less compacted and of a different color than the soil below indicating that it had been disturbed at some point in the past. I measured the depth, photographed the clear stratigraphy, and then wept for whoever it was that had been buried here.
Looking into an empty grave cut in the African Burying Place at Hillside Cemetery. The thin dark layer is decayed organic material – i.e. a human being.
Then I got angry and called Dr. Nick Bellantoni who was at that time the State Archaeologist. After sending him and Ruth Shapleigh-Brown from the CT Gravestone Network the notes and photos, Nick reached out to the Hillside Cemetery Association to inform them that, even in a cemetery, if human remains are found in an unmarked area, they are required to call it in. Guess what? They never called and they kept on burying people.
And still, all these years later, the Hillside Cemetery Association has yet to notify the newer families buried in this section know that their loved ones are being buried on top of, and within, other people. I was told years ago that they stopped selling plots here, but on my last visit I saw the addition of a brand new headstone.
I hope this was a plot sold thirty plus years ago but I have my doubts. [NOTE: A colleague at the Historical Society just informed me that this plot was purchased in the 1980’s.] Nonetheless this plot and stone belong to someone who had ample opportunities to hear me present my research, someone who should know better, though apparently they just don’t care.
View of African Burying Place looking north from the dirt road. Flora Freeman’s stone is the white stone near the center of the image.
And no, the Hillside Cemetery Association cannot say they didn’t know – more than 10 years ago I asked to address the association during one of their business meetings. They were polite and listened as I presented my research, and while there may have been a few questions, I only remember the reaction of one board member. This person was openly hostile to my research and basically dismissed it as meaningless. I remember feeling deeply uncomfortable with this person’s aggressiveness towards my work but in my naïveté never considered why that was. I know better now, which brings me back to the idea that they just don’t care.
Over the years I have had people tell me to calm down. They’ve said “Who cares? They’re long gone and no one remembers them anyway.” I’ve been told not to rock the boat and have been berated for upsetting and causing pain to the family members of the more recent burials. Even members of my family have gotten upset with me as if it is somehow my fault.
Yes, it is painful to hear or to know that your loved one is buried on top of someone else, but by trying to ignore that fact, or urging me not to speak, we are saying it is okay to do this because they were black. By focusing on our own hurt and pain, we are saying that our pain is more important than the pain of the families of the people already buried there. Try to imagine how Rhoda’s family feels knowing your loved one is buried on top of her. If we can be okay with this, what else can we be okay with? How many other areas of our lives have we allowed ourselves to lack empathy for our neighbors of color?
For those of you who are feeling angry with me for writing this post, remember that I am only the messenger. I did not sell those plots. I am sorry for all the hurt this may be causing you, but direct that hurt and anger where it belongs. It was the Hillside Cemetery Association who sold you that plot. THEY didn’t tell you there were people buried there or even that they suspected there were people buried there. THEY never gave you a choice. THEY are the ones to blame, and THEY need to fix this.
To the family members of the people buried here in the past, I am truly and profoundly sorry. I am complicit, for in my cowardice, I did not speak up sooner and did not speak loudly enough. I have sat silently as they have continued to bury people on top of your family without saying a word. I visited them and I wept for them but I never stood up for them. Until now. I pray that you and the ancestors will forgive me.
A few years ago a mole was digging the ground at Flora’s grave. A few pieces of coffin hardware were recovered by Dr. Nick Bellantoni, Ruth Shapleigh-Brown, and myself.
Would we feel differently if it was our ancestors whose graves were being disturbed? How would you feel if they sold me a plot that contained your great-grandmother? Would you be upset to see them dig my grave through her grave? Would it hurt to know that you and your family’s feelings just didn’t matter as much as my feelings? The fact is, that as white people, we don’t really have to worry about this happening to our loved ones. THIS is one of those racist policies that most of us never ever consider, but it is a policy that we are clearly benefiting from. My guess is most of you have never thought about it and that is the point. That is how racism, structural, institutional, systemic, whatever you choose to call it, grew roots in our communities and our lives.
All of this has made me ache for the town I grew up in. It is hard enough to know that since Cheshire segregated African Americans in death, it probably segregated them in life too. It is hard to comprehend the maliciousness with which some of Cheshire’s more well known historical figures treated their captives, and painful to read about the “boys will be boys” jokes that were perpetrated on Cheshire’s black citizens in the 18th and 19th centuries and recorded by Edwin R. Brown. But it is much, much harder to know that even today, in a place where we are supposed to be showing respect to our dead, the Hillside Cemetery Association continues to disregard and disrespect the black bodies that were a part of our community and helped build the town we live in. And that they continue to desecrate the ground in which they were buried.
I will be silent no longer. I am ready to cause good trouble, necessary trouble. And I hope that you, my neighbors here in Cheshire, will speak up, stand with me and cause good trouble.