The ceremony was hosted by the Kingston Land Trust. On hand were the Franklin Street AME Zion Church, Old Dutch Church, Kingston VFW, Pointe of Praise Family Life Center, the First Presbyterian Church, city historian Ed Ford, several dignitaries and descendents of the grounds’ deceased.
“We stand before you today with joyful hearts, overcome and in awe of your grace, as we pause to celebrate the lives of the 20th Regiment war veterans and free slaves who find their rest in you,” prayed the Rev. Glorya Askew in opening the ceremony. “With renewed vigor we remember them and dedicate our efforts and energy to treating all your children — present and future — with the utmost dignity, as we pay homage to the spirits of our ancestors of the African Diaspora and this burial site.”
County Executive Mike Hein spoke for a moment, acknowledging that attendees were standing on “sacred ground” and reminding all that the ceremony was less than a week from Memorial Day, by which 30 buried veterans deserve honor. Ford recounted a story about Everette Hodge and his family-owned funeral home. Kingston Veterans Association member Bill Forte likened the initial Herculean endeavor Joe Forte (Bill’s father), Chappy Vanderzee, Clyde Broadhead and Leon Fitzgerald first shouldered of restoring the grounds to a line from Christian gospel hymn “Amazing Grace” — “I was lost, but now I’m found.” He described the neglect the grounds had fallen into: broken head stones, tangles of overgrowth and pervasive litter and debris.
The men’s goal, Bill Forte recounted, was to complete the restoration and cleanup before Memorial Day to host a service at long last. Joe Forte is the sole survivor of the four who originally took on the task; he took the podium to describe the uphill battle of reversing 20 years of neglect which included thievery of bricks, stones and even copper pipes.
Visiting descendants of families — some hailing from Washington D.C. and beyond — shared their own personal recollections or the stories of their ancestors buried in a cemetery which time forgot. Terri Gittens said, “When I started doing research, it took my breath away.” Gittens’ great-grandfather Paul Allen migrated here from Portsmouth, Va., settled in Kingston and worked in a brickyard for a “lucrative and decent salary.” Allen married her grandmother Daisy Mae Vanderzee from Hurley, one of the many buried in the cemetery alongside Gittens’ aunt.
Another such story was heard from Ashley Knox, who described her sense of place in this world as having come through her mother. When her mother passed, she said, “I lost the stories of my heritage.” Knox was floored when she first learned about an African-American burial ground. “On South Wall Street?! African burial ground?! In Kingston, New York? I felt like I was on a treasure hunt.” Knox and her sister came to visit the graveyard, and recalled it as having been a very spiritual moment for the sisters. “It was the most unique and influential experience in my life — especially after losing my mother,” said Knox.
An elderly Harriet McClamb said she never forgot. Sandy and Augusta Fitzgerald raised her, along with 13 other children. “It was a beautiful time to know my aunts and uncles. At age 2, I discovered what love is … Amen.” McClamb described how each one of her aunts was buried in the forgotten grounds. “I didn’t hear about it. I didn’t read about it. I was there!”
“An old African proverb: ‘People who lack knowledge of their pasts are like trees without roots,’” said Renee VanDyke, who emotionally explained how her passion of over 11 years in researching her history delivered her to old worlds new to her through Ancestory.com. Despite the long and steep learning curve of researching ancestral lines through one-dimensional microfiche, the evolution of the Internet opened a virtual window into the world of her family by downloading articles, photos, census, and stories from the local newspaper, enabling her to stand before the crowd to tell their stories. VanDyke said that she learned that her great-grandmother lived to be 101, and that her great-grandfather owned four homes — a prolific and unheard-of achievement for a black person in that era. He was also the first “colored man” to be married in the Old Dutch Church. VanDyke’s baby brother was also buried in the cemetery without a marker, and recalled how her father used to take her to where he believed the baby to have been buried. “We have moved away from here, but we have never forgotten.”
Several guests notably straightened their backs with pride during the powerful poem written and read by descendant Tiffany VanDyke about her family’s lineage in the graveyard. “So, let the drummers play the sound of a beat that going forward should resound and repeat a call to remember, a time to revere, every soul that’s buried here. We rededicate this precious land and appreciate every hand that reached out to make it noted this is a place meant to be devoted, the soil is fruitful and the seeds were strong, as even more beautiful flowers are coming along to stand upon the place our history was planted, enjoying the freedom they unselfishly granted … ”
Attendees sang the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and prayed for unity and peace. The Rev. Ken Walsh of the Old Dutch church read aloud the letter of reconciliation drafted by himself and his church elders apologizing to the black community for his church’s historical treatment of African-Americans. It was met by sighs, gasps and exclamations of breathy wonder and support. Askew pointed out that Walsh, from Kingston’s oldest white church, and AME Zion’s Rev. Adams, from Kingston’s oldest black church, were standing side-by-side under the tent. “What a reconciliation,” she declared.
Guests clutched the purple irises they were asked to bring throughout a naming ceremony in which a “cacophony of names” was spoken aloud by family of all the deceased to be remembered that day. Afterwards, the all-children Percussion Orchestra of Kingston (POOK), organized through Kingston’s Center for Creative Education, performed African drumming for guests as they strolled through the graveyard site to look on the newly improved grounds.
Jarus Wittera, a congregant of AME Zion, was impressed. “This was supreme. Awesome. Remembering those people who gave us their freedom. We didn’t know them. It was good.” Etta Dixon remarked that the apology letter surprised her, and gave her goosebumps. “I was humbled that they thought it was necessary to do this and to give an apology. And now we can move on and become one people,” said an emotional Dixon. “We can move past the racism. Now we are all one. God didn’t want us to look the same; we are just like different flowers in one garden.”