Monthly Archives: June 2012

Black History in American Graveyards

Lay Down Body: Living History in African American CemeteriesLay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries by Roberta Hughes Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book seems to have been designed as a textbook for an African American Studies program, but that’s not a bad thing. Whenever the Hugheses get down to the business of discussing black history, I learned things I’ve never seen discussed anywhere else. However, everything is viewed through the lens of race (as opposed to cemetery history). When the authors lament the destruction of historic black cemeteries, they don’t step away from their topic enough to see the destruction of all cemeteries that stand in the way of land developers or freeway construction. The guarantor of destruction is not race, but class. Poor Irish, poor Polish, poor Chilean, poor Chinese: if communities could not afford permanent markers or perpetual care for their dead, the dead were at risk of being evicted or paved over.

That said, the Hugheses made remarkable efforts to locate living historians in the African American communities they visited, whether those people were morticians, academicians, or storytellers. These stories, in the tellers’ own words, provide a wealth of detail missing in many dryer cemetery tomes.

Also included in the book is a vast amount of information on how to do genealogical research. The combination seems like a natural, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

The major drawback to the book is the muddiness of the illustrations. I’m not convinced that the photographs were taken intentionally as illustrations. No care seems to have been taken with the lighting or focus. Still, though, they cover subject matter collected nowhere else.

Copies are available through Amazon: Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries.

This review was originally published in Morbid Curiosity #5.

Cemetery of the Week #65: African Burial Ground National Monument, New York City, New York

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Not the book the African Burial Ground deserves

Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial GroundBreaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground by Joyce Hansen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was excited to find a book about Manhattan’s African Burial Ground, which I visited for the first time in May 2002. At that time, the African Burial Ground was merely a patch of grass inside a chain-link fence with an historic plaque, not much of a remembrance for the thousands of Africans, slaves and free, who were interred there. Of course, after 9/11, commemorating the long-dead became less of a priority. Thankfully, the site has been made right at last.

The subtitle of this book is “The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground.” Unfortunately, when the book was published in 1998, not much seems to have been known about the graveyard. Perhaps Howard University was still performing the analyses of the 400+ bodies that were recovered, but only a handful of the reclaimed bodies are discussed here. Maybe the archaeologists were busy writing their papers for other publications, but there’s not much information about what they found. What’s there is fascinating, but scant.

Apparently there are few historical documents pertaining to the space, other than old maps. The authors pad out the book with history lessons drawn from legal records about the treatment and lives of the Africans brought to the colony by the Dutch, then the British, then the new-fledged Americans. The history was new to me, but not nearly as interesting as the contents of the graveyard — for which I’d purchased the book.

I hoped that there would be a new book available when I revisited the African Burial Ground (now a national monument) last week.  In fact, the African Burial Ground National Monument gift shop sold a small paper-bound booklet called New York’s African Burial Ground, but it lacks coherent structure and the text is repetitive. There still seems to be no solid book about this important graveyard.  This is a serious problem.

You can find used copies of Breaking Ground on Amazon: Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Books)

New York’s African Burial Ground by Dr. Martia G. Goodson can be purchased from the Park Service here.

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Cemetery of the Week #65: the African Burial Ground

The African Burial Ground National Monument

African Burial Ground National Monument
Duane Street, between Broadway and African Burial Ground Way/Elk Street
Manhattan, New York 10007
Telephone: (212) 637-2019
Opened to the public: October 5, 2007
Size: 6.6 acres is the estimated size of the entire burial ground.
Number of Interments: 419 inside the monument. Up to 20,000 may have once been buried in the surrounding area. Undoubtedly, some of them are still there.
Open: The monument is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The visitor center at 290 Broadway is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Both are closed on Federal holidays.
Admission: free. However, you must pass through security to see the visitor center or the exhibits inside the Ted Weiss Federal Building. No food or drink allowed.

As early as 1626, the Dutch imported Africans to work as slaves in New Amsterdam, now known as Manhattan. Technically owned by the Dutch East India Company, these Africans could own property, be baptized, and marry. In 1644, 11 male Africans won their freedom and control of the 100 acres they had been farming, but they had to continue to pay taxes in the form of crops to the Company. Their children were still enslaved.

When the British took over and renamed the island New York in 1664, slave laws became more stringent. As much as a quarter of the colonial workforce was enslaved. Africans were brought from the countries now called Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Mozambique, and Madagascar. They spoke a variety of languages and practiced different religions. Most suffered from malnutrition and injuries from overwork.

There seems to be no surviving record of when the burial ground was first used, but The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries suggests it might date from 1697, when Trinity Church began to prohibit the burial of Africans in its churchyard. Until the late 1700s, the “Negros Buriel Ground” – as it was labeled on maps from the second half of the 18th century – was the only graveyard allowed for the African population. The dead were wrapped in shrouds, placed in wooden coffins, and buried with their heads pointing toward the west. Some were buried with beads or coins on their eyes.

Used as a potter’s field, then serving the British as a graveyard for their prisoners during the Revolutionary War, the burial ground officially closed in 1794. After that, a pottery manufacturer used the area as a dump. In 1792, Chambers Street was cut across the cemetery grounds. In 1795, lots were developed and sold. The burial ground was buried and forgotten.

…Until 1991, when the United States General Services Administration broke ground for a new federal courthouse and office building in Lower Manhattan. The contractors were surprised when they began to come across graves 16 to 25 feet below street level. (I’m told that construction on the island of Manhattan is required to excavate as much weight below as the building above will add, in order not to add too much weight and sink the island. I’m not sure that’s true, but it does explain the seven sub-basements below the World Trade Center.) Once anthropologists took over, they estimated that up to 20,000 Africans were buried in an area that once covered as many as five city blocks.

Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries reported on the struggle between archaeologists who wanted to excavate the anthropological relics with “dental pick and toothbrush” and the government contractors who preferred to use a backhoe. In the end, parts of 419 skeletons went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. for forensic analysis.

Since the burial ground was significant in both regional and national history, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. A tiny fragment of the graveyard was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993. The Graveyard Shift reported in 1998 that the remains were supposed to be returned to New York for reburial under a memorial pavilion on the original site.

When I visited in 2002, I was thrilled to see mention of the African Burial Ground Historic District atop the street signs. For once, it seemed that a forgotten cemetery was getting the respect it deserved. When I finally tracked down the remnant of the burial ground on my last morning in New York City, I found only a painted wooden sign listing a few brief facts inside a chain-link fence around a small patch of grass across from the Javits Federal Building. The reburial ceremony had been derailed by September 11, 2001.

Extra coffin inside the visitor’s center.

Finally in October 2003, a traditional African burial ceremony took place. The remains were placed in coffins handmade in Ghana and accompanied to the monument site by dancers, singers, and priests.

President George W. Bush signed a proclamation in February 2006, which designated the burial site as a National Monument. The U.S. National Park Service took over management of the site at that point. The memorial was finally dedicated in 2007. Maya Angelou and Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke.

Currently, the Park Service mans an Interpretive Center and gift shop on the first floor of the Ted Weiss Federal Building, located at 290 Broadway, between Duane and Reade Streets. This Visitors Center houses a small museum, which discusses the history of Africans in the colonial era. One wall displays archeological photographs of the gravesites. There are the stories the bones can tell us and a record of the grave goods, but everything tangible has been returned to the ground now. “The African Burial Ground,” the Park Service’s brochure says, “is widely acknowledged as one of America’s most significant archeological finds of the 20th century.” It’s good that this museum exists as a record of it.

Next door, inside the Ted Weiss building proper are more exhibits about the burial ground, but I’d visited too late in the day to see them.

Map showing the complete African Burial Ground

Around behind the building lies the African Burial Ground National Monument itself. First you come upon seven small mounds, which cover the vaults in which the remains were placed. The site includes “The Circle of the Diaspora,” a spiral map of the world surrounded by African symbols and religious talismans from many faiths. The final part of the monument is the 24-foot black stone “Ancestral Libation Chamber,” designed by Architect Rodney Leon.

The monument and visitors center are sobering reminders of the sacrifices forced upon the people who built this country. Plan to leave time to meditate or pray at the site.

Useful links:

The National Park Service site

African Burial Ground FAQs

The text of President Bush’s proclamation

Free walking tour of Lower Manhattan called “A Broader View: Exploring the African Presence in Early New York”

GPS coordinates & a photo map via

Books I’ve reviewed that reference the African Burial Ground:

Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground

Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries

The Graveyard Shift

Cemetery of the Week #64: Coloma Pioneer Cemetery

Thos. Younger monument, Coloma

Coloma Pioneer Cemetery
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
310 Back Street, Coloma, California 95613
Telephone: (530) 622-3470
Founded: 1848
Number of interments: over 600 known burials in 400-500 graves
Open: Tuesday – Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., closed Monday

Coloma, the ghost town at the heart of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, is little more now than a handful of rebuilt buildings along Highway 49. 49, which turns off the main highway at Auburn, traces the original trail between the gold camps of the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode.

The drive to Coloma is spectacular, winding high above the American River gorge, where a jogger was eaten by a mountain lion. This is still wild country, despite the well-maintained highway and the canyon-leaping bridges. Imagine what it was like 160-some years ago, when you had to ford the foaming river rapids.

Your exploration of the dead buried in California’s first state park begins at the Marshall monument. Towering above the valley, the monument was erected in 1890 to the memory of the man responsible for changing the territory to a state.

James Marshall made history when he picked a golden nugget out of the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848. Sutter, perhaps foreseeing what would happen to his land once word got out, asked Marshall to keep quiet about the find. Of course, Sutter himself couldn’t help mentioning it to Sam Brannan, a local Mormon shopkeeper, who collected a golden tithe from all the Mormon workers at the mill, then ran through the streets of San Francisco, flashing the vial and shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

A year passed, before the rush became a torrent of immigrants. Sutter lost his land, his mill, and even his cattle to the gold seekers. Marshall, a spiritualist who believed that gold had vibrations that could speak to him, was hounded by men hoping he’d lead them to their fortunes. Both men died penniless and embittered.

Five years after Marshall’s death in 1885, California decided to show its gratitude to the man who’d made the state’s fortune. Tens of thousands of people came to the ceremony to dedicate Marshall’s monument, including the governor. It must have been the biggest day that Coloma had ever seen.

The monument towers overhead, a tall obelisk of white marble and gray granite. A relief of the Amazon queen Califia, for whom California is named, and her grizzly bear decorates the side of the monument facing the river. Above them hangs a bronze placer pan, pick, and shovel. On the monument’s opposite side hangs a bronze two-handed saw, a log scythe, and a plane: carpentry tools like those Marshall used to build the fateful mill. Below the tools is carved a relief of Marshall’s rough wooden cabin, the buildings of Coloma, and Sutter’s mill.

At the very top of the monument stands a statue of Marshall himself, pointing down at the river to the place where he’d found the first gold. The park’s visitor center displays a watercolor portrait of Marshall done from life, so a record exists of what he looked like. All the same, the man on the monument is shrouded by a beard and shadowed by a large soft-brimmed hat. He is fairly anonymous: the Everyman Forty-Niner.

One of the park’s signs said that this spot was chosen for the monument because it was Marshall’s grave. I read elsewhere that he’d died in nearby Kelsey, where his body was packed in ice for the journey back to Coloma. Nowhere have I found an explanation of why Marshall wasn’t buried in the pioneer cemetery down in the valley. I wondered if the ground around the monument had ever been consecrated. I wondered if impoverished Marshall had had any marker at all before the state stepped in.

The Pioneer Cemetery itself lies away from the traffic on Highway 49, away from the kids panning for gold in the cold American River. The cemetery has borne a variety of names, but was founded as the Sutter’s Mill Cemetery in 1848. All the original wooden markers vanished in the intervening years. The oldest remaining gravestone dates to 1849. A century and a half is not old in the scope of Europe or Japan, but it marks the earliest years of the American presence in California.

Try to envision the California these pioneers had known. Coloma must have seemed like the edge of the earth. In the terrible winter of 1846-47, the Donner Party had been trapped by 22-foot snows near Lake Tahoe, in the mountains not far from Coloma. Like the mountain lion outside of Auburn, the Donners resorted to eating human flesh to stay alive. This was wild country, and dangerous, in which to raise a family and make a living. Could anything other than greed have sparked such a migration?

After Marshall retrieved his glittering rock in January 1848, people flooded in from all over the world. The names in the graveyard ranged from Rasmussen to Sakurai, Papini to LeGuerre, McGonagle to Teuscher. The rough camp of Sutter’s Mill was transformed into a little wooden town and renamed Coloma. At its height, the town served as home to 3,000 men, women, and children.

A town of any size requires a place to honor its dead. The difficult conditions — hellish heat, frigid winters, overcrowded inadequate shacks, a diet of beans, and the backbreaking labor of standing all day in bone-chilling water to scoop up pan after pan of gravel in hopes of finding a fortune — took a predictable toll. According to the Coloma Cemeteriesbooklet, the Pioneer Cemetery has over 600 known burials in 400-500 graves.

Grave of Mary C. Forbes, with her footstone in place

Before 1851, marble for headstones had to be brought from Vermont or Italy. Such a long delivery made marble prohibitively expensive, so most monuments were simply shaped out of wood. In 1851, one of the Sacramento stonemasons discovered native marble in the Sierra Mountains. From that point on, reasonably wealthy mourners could commemorate loved ones in a more permanent way.

Since 1990, a preservation society has made it their work to label as many graves as they can. Small bronze plaques with names and dates, if known, are set in concrete on some of the graves. Others have only a wooden obelisk with a typed paper label.

Useful links:

The California State Parks page for Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

The cemetery’s Historical Marker text

Gold Discovery Park Association has an app.

A PDF map of the park, showing the cemetery.

The Unexplained Mysteries ghost hunting report

The cemetery’s GPS coordinates at

Other Gold Rush-era graveyards on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #13: Mission Dolores Cemetery in San Francisco, California

Cemetery of the Week #25: Wards Cemetery in Bodie, California

Newer graveyards that received Gold Rush-era reburials on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #35: Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California

Cemetery of the Week #55: Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California

Cemetery of the Week #66: Old City Cemetery, Sacramento, California

Photographic Exploration of Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey: The MonumentsWestminster Abbey: The Monuments by Joe Whitlock Blundell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With over a thousand years of history behind it, Westminster Abbey is the repository of memory in the heart of London. Anyone who is anyone in the United Kingdom tried to get themselves buried in the Abbey for hundreds of years. Those who were buried elsewhere were often honored with a monument as grand as a life-sized sculpture or as simple as a plaque on the wall. One could spend hours wandering amongst the statuary inside the church and still miss many gems.

The abbey’s website says, “Taken as a whole, the tombs and memorials comprise the most significant single collection of monumental sculpture anywhere in the United Kingdom.” Unfortunately, photography inside the Abbey is prohibited. Some photographs of the monuments are available in the Abbey’s gift shop or in one of the souvenir guidebooks for sale. What is needed, though, is a serious photographic study of the wonders jammed cheek by jowl against the Abbey’s walls.

This book attempts to document some of the mortuary sculpture. Of necessity, the shades of gray in the photos blunt the whiteness of the marble and brighten the darkness of the shadows, so they don’t completely do justice to the Abbey’s treasures. Still, Blundell has a fascination with detail and uses tight focus to good effect, giving a sense of the way your eye bounces around the room, struggling to take it all in.

I like that the book includes capsule biographies of the people commemorated by the statuary. I wish the biographies were attached to their pictures, rather than arranged by number at the back of the book. The arrangement makes sense if you’re at the Abbey, working your way around the room and matching the photographs to the artwork. As a reader who might be interested in finding, say, Isaac Newton’s grave, the lack of alphabetization or an index means that I have to read through the biographies until I find him, then cross-reference back to the photo.

Still, until I can make my own collection of photographs from Westminster Abbey, I’m glad to have this book. It’s lovely, if frustrating.

The book is inexplicably out of print. I got my copy from eBay, but Amazon does have some used copies for sale: Westminster Abbey: The Monuments

Cemetery of the Week #63: Westminster Abbey, London, England

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