Every year, one week before Veterans Day, Kingston veterans assemble at Mount Zion cemetery for a ceremony to honor a division of Union soldiers who truly gave everything for their freedom — The U.S. Colored Infantry’s 20th Regiment. World War II veterans Clyde Broadhead and Joe Forte have been fighting the good fight for this graveyard for decades — petitioning and obtaining historic landmark status with the Kingston Common Council in 1987, as well as restoring and maintaining it over many years. There are roughly 30 graves containing black Union soldiers, and another dozen graves containing World War I and World War II black soldiers as well. Broadhead believes that his own father may have been buried there — in a blanket, not even a casket. Forte and Broadhead say that though have gone through periods investing dozens of hours every day working on the serene plot of land, and their work is far from over. Joe’s son Bill Forte, also a war veteran, now maintain the property through the Kingston Veterans Association.
“This place just means so much,” an emotional Bill emphasized, “It has so much significance.”
In the 1980s Forte was curious about some of the deceased veterans with no more than a simple name with dates of birth and death, so he pursued more information via the Kingston city register, only to see an entire person’s life only recorded with the city as: “Samuel West/colored/Buried colored cemetery.”
Mount Zion Cemetery, tucked into a semi-rural setting barely visible from South Wall Street, belongs to the first black church in Ulster County, the circa-1848 African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of Kingston, which established the cemetery. There are few records about the graveyard, and according to the Kingston Land Trust, though it is registered as a historical landmark, it is unclear as to which designations it has received and by which governing agencies it has been registered beyond the city. The extension of the cemetery on what is now Pine Street has long been paved over; unacknowledged and uncounted bodies of slaves rest under the Pine Street Medical Arts Building. Many of the bodies which had been dug up before construction were callously tossed into a mass grave in the cemetery of Old Dutch Church, which now bears a single marker and a modest flag.
Recently, Rebecca Martin of the Kingston Land Trust arranged a tour of all the grounds —both honored and forgotten — with City Historian Ed Ford, the Rev. Lorenzo McMillian and a dozen congregants descending from buried relatives. Also on hand were Joe Forte and Sandra Hopgood from Midtown’s Everette Hodge center, who brought a handful of black teens “shackled” with rubber bands binding their hands and feet so they could safely experience a taste of what their ancestors had to endure. (“I wanted them to feel uncomfortable,” said Hopgood). Others on the tour were interested local and county historians as well.
According to the Kingston, N.Y. Architectural Guide, Gail Schneider discovered a deed dated May 1, 1840, between Henry and Ann Houghtaling, parties of the first part, and Richard Peterson, Samuel Brown, and Samuel Beekman, Trustees of the “Coulered people’s Burying Ground,” parties of the second part. The guide reads: “What is apparent is the beauty of the setting, a wooded, elevated tongue of land extending from the cemetery entrance of South Wall Street and providing views down the steep slope towards the Rondout Creek … Its landscape features are as appealingly picturesque as those found at Montrepose and Wiltwyck, which probably were originally intended for the burial of white Kingstonians.”
In 1918, vandals ravaged 26 monuments from the graves of Civil War soldiers, hurling them down the embankment, while ruining 15 other markers. Ford remarked that it was not believed that these were specifically racially motivated, but rather just kids or vandals being destructive.
“People could pass by here and never know this place was here,” marveled McMillian. “A lot of people in this community don’t even know this place exists.” McMillian pledged that he would be soliciting help from the other four or AME churches in the area to raise money for and work on the site within the next few months.
Betty Royal Vanderzee visited with one of the largest marble stones in the Mount Zion graveyard, the site of her deceased husband’s parents and sister, who were all buried together. Vanderzee explained that the family and her husband all paid for the stone. The expansive Vanderzee family was originally from Hurley, which was once upon a time was “just one large piece of land” she added.
“The fact that it’s been ignored so many years … it really hurts,” expressed a saddened Terri Gittens, who grandmother was Daisy Mae Vanderzee, also from Hurley. The grief some of the congregants felt as they looked on the graves and broken tombstones was palpable. McMillian gathered the group to pray in a circle for the souls of the deceased soldiers and slaves, and for those who are taking care of the cemetery today.
Gittens has managed to cultivate something beautiful from the buried pain of her ancestors: the Cultural Awareness Restores Equality (CARE) program, in which she digs into her own pockets to fund re-enactments and “living exhibits” of slavery, including telling the story of Sojourner Truth. “God showed me how to do it,” she said simply.
Dominic Olivo 20, Kingston was scanning the graves while “shackled” by Hopgood. “The slaves were treated badly, brutally attacked,” said Olivo. “They were killed. They didn’t have opportunities, and the chance to have happiness, freedom like I do.”
The historical touring group left the well-groomed Mount Zion cemetery down to visit the Pine Street location, which is the extension of the cemetery sold in the 1900s to a lumberyard which erected lumber-houses over the cemetery, but never actually dug into the earth. Years later, the lumberyard was abandoned and a house was built on the site, which is now 159 Pine St. Ford explained to the group congregating in the backyard that herein lies the bodies of slaves, and that there was no way to even determine who they were, or how many. The group stared into the half-acre of the address’ dilapidating rental house with an overgrown lawn and a garden exploding with weeds, many shaking their heads with disbelief and disgust. The city was alerted to its presence quite by accident in 1996, said Ford; the property owner was digging, and hit bones. He boxed the bones and brought them to a SUNY New Paltz archeology professor who was working on the cemetery project. Once the analysis determined that the bones were not the remains of a murder, it was concluded that they were the bones from the Mount Zion cemetery extension.
“Someone could actually still buy this house, and still live here,” said Ford, who felt strongly that the city should act to create some sort of designation containing a deed restriction. “This does not look like sacred grounds here.”
The tour was especially harrowing for Hopgood, who survived being raised in Whiteville, N.C., in the 1950s. “You even know how it was by its name,” she quipped. Hopgood recalled how she and her family would dive into the road ditches when headlights would hit them, for fear of beatings or worse. “No matter what pretty taffeta dress I was wearing, we had to dive in, and hide.” Like Gittens, Hopgood has taken her own lifetime of endangered living and turned it around to successfully create a safe space for minority kids at the Hodge center.
For more information on the grounds or tour, please visit Kingston Land Trust’s website where documentation is available as well as a recorded version of Ford’s tour — Kingstonlandtrust.org.