For those men and women enslaved by the Schuyler family in the 17th and 18th century, there was no Emancipation Proclamation, no Juneteenth Celebration.
This weekend, however, the remains of 14 people held in bondage by one of Colonial New York’s most prominent households will finally be afforded a small degree of the respect they never experienced in life thanks to the Schuyler Flatts African Burial Ground Project. The remains of the 14 will lie in state at the Schuyler Mansion in downtown Albany from noon until 8 p.m. on Friday, and then will be reinterred in a special burial ceremony at St. Agnes Cemetery in the town of Colonie from 11 a.m. until noon on Saturday. The public is invited to both events.
“I wanted to treat my African-American ancestors with some of the dignity and respect they didn’t get when they were alive,” said Evelyn Kamili King, an Albany native who resurrected the burial project a little more than a year ago. “So many wonderful people came together and pitched in to get this done. It became my mission. It was something I felt I really needed to do, and I’m so honored to fulfill my mission and see it all come together with a beautiful burial ceremony at St. Agnes Cemetery.”
The skeletal remains were found in 2005 on the west side of Route 32 in Menands just across the street from Schuyler Flatts and very close to what will be their final resting place at St. Agnes. The items were taken to the New York State Museum where they were examined by bioarchaeologist Lisa Anderson and her staff, and then put on a shelf in storage until the Schuyler Flatts African Burial Ground Project, after a few starts and stops, eventually found firm footing under King’s leadership.
“I saw a newspaper article about it in 2009, so I decided to get on the committee,” remembered King, who works for the New York State Assembly. “There was a lot of buzz at the time, but the interest seemed to dissolve. I found myself on a committee but no one else was coming to the meetings.”
King got things back on track by attracting the help of people like Paul Stewart of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region, Cordell Reaves, a program analyst with the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Heidi Hill, site director at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, and Kelly Grimaldi, historian for the Albany Diocese, which oversees St. Agnes Cemetery.
“It seemed like a large project and I didn’t know if I could do it,” King recalled. “But then some wonderful people helped out. St. Agnes Cemetery provided the burial lots for us, and the town of Colonie gave us some financial help. So many people contributed, and now we’re celebrating these 14 people. It’s bittersweet because slavery is such a painful part of our past, but honoring our ancestors, who struggled so hard and went through pain and agony, is something we can all be proud of.”
A large component of the Schuyler Flatts Project has been the work contributed toward the burial containers by various artists and the Northeastern Woodworkers Association.
“The containers are very unique, they are beautifully crafted with love, and they are beautiful pieces of art done in different styles and designs,” said Reaves, who oversaw the artists’ input into the project. “Each container is a wonderful personal tribute to each of these people.”
The 14 individuals are made up of two young children, probably between the ages of 4 and 10, five infants, six adult females and one adult male.
“These people probably weren’t Catholic, so we’re inviting spiritual leaders from the entire faith community to the ceremony,” said Grimaldi. “We are a Diocesan-run cemetery, we’ve been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2008, and what these people went through is a part of our history. It’s right that we offer them a final resting place.”
Reflections on the past
• “The issue of slavery; it still hasn’t gone away. We have the opportunity to use this as part of the healing process. We have a rare opportunity to show who we are as a nation. We can do something directly for these people who were so mistreated by our government. I don’t like to say we’re atoning for our sins, but essentially that’s what we’re doing. We’re saying to the community, the world, that America did support the institution of slavery, and we know that it was wrong then and it’s wrong now. To bury them high on a hill with a beautiful view, and to honor them with a ceremony is just the right to do.” —Kelly Grimaldi, historian at St. Agnes Cemetery
• “It’s always a privilege to have an opportunity to learn about the past, but it was particularly rewarding to work on the Schuyler Flatts project and help share the story of enslaved people from colonial Albany. Thanks to the hard work and vision of so many in the community, the reburial will be a fitting final chapter to honor these individuals as they are laid to rest with dignity and respect.” —Lisa Anderson, bioarchaeologist at the New York State Museum
• “I don’t like calling them slaves. I like to say they were people from the 18th century who were enslaved, and I’m really glad we’ve finally reached the point where we can actually get them reburied. It’s taken some time to do the scientific examination of the remains and learn what we could about their story. Now, that’s all done and I’m anxious to see them reburied, especially on Juneteenth weekend, a very important day in African-American history.” —Paul Stewart, Underground Railroad Project of the Capital District
• “People don’t think of upstate New York and the Capital Region as a place where slavery was a huge industry, but it was. It thrived in New York and we need to remember that. It’s an important part of our shared history, and when you remove a large swab of the story that history no longer makes sense. Our history helps us determine who we are and our self-identity. When you take out pieces we don’t get the whole story, and that’s why this is so important.” —Cordell Reaves, program analyst at the State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
• “I put the remains in a boat because I feel as though we’re setting them off, and I was thinking about the symbolism of a boat as a means of transport. I thought that would be appropriate, and it’s so right that we are doing this. These slaves and their ancestors came to America by boat, and now they’re in another boat which is a method of transportation for what is coming beyond. ” —Peter Leue, sculptor and woodworker
• “I painted the continent of Africa with a women inside Africa reaching toward the Sakoval bird, and I made sure I put Madagascar in there because I think a couple of these slaves were from there. I was trying to focus on the idea of them returning home. This was a very tangible way for me to connect to all the history I’ve studied, so it was very powerful for me to think about what my ancestors had to go through. This is a way of honoring that memory, and I’m so glad to be a part of something that honors them.” —Danielle Colin Charlestin, painter and poet
• “We’re very happy to be connected to this project. The remains will be here from noon until 8 p.m. on Friday, and we will in essence have a memorial service here with speakers, poetry and musical offerings. It will all be to honor these people who were once enslaved at Schuyler Flatts. It will be free of charge, and we’ve emptied out our hallway and put in tables with the burial containers created by the artists.” —Heidi Hill, director at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site
• “It’s been a long time coming for these unfortunate people, who were wrested from their burial place, but will now really have a wonderful final resting place. Their remains have been treated in a dignified manner, and we’ve learned a lot about them. I’m very proud of how this community of people and different groups all came together to work on this project. It was very important that we get this done.” —Kevin Franklin, town of Colonie historian
In Schenectady, Vale Cemetery will be marking Juneteenth with a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation at the cemetery’s African American Ancestral Burial Ground at 6 p.m. Friday. Participating in the ceremony will be members of the U.S. Colored Troops Institute, which will offer a “graveside salute” led by Hartwick College professor and Associate Dean Harry Bradshaw Matthews.
Among the African Americans being honored by Vale are Civil War soldiers Jared Jackson and William Childress.
On Saturday, the Hamilton Hill Arts Center will sponsor its 16th annual Juneteenth Celebration at Central Park with a variety of acitivities, including a talent show, health fair, hair-braiding competition and historic displays.
Juneteenth commemorates the delivery of General Order No. 3 to the slaves remaining in bondage in Texas following the Civil War on June 19, 1865. While President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, freed all the slaves in the states then in rebellion against the U.S., the news didn’t reach parts of Texas until Union General Gordon Granger issued his order in Galveston on June 19.
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