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What you need to know for 01/20/2017

Visit to cemetery uncovers surprising local history

Visit to cemetery uncovers surprising local history

Our walk in Green Hill Cemetery remains, in the words of Australian poet, Harry “Breaker” Harbord Mo

My wife and I were married in 1979, and our wedding cost less than $200.

We went to Vermont for our honeymoon in a borrowed car that broke down the first night. Three years and one child later, we were still broke. Wanting to do something with our two-year-old son one weekend, but without money, we went for a walk in Amsterdam’s Green Hill Cemetery.

We did not know it at the time, but the place was part of the 19th century rural cemetery movement, which advocated creating garden and park-like cemeteries, following the natural terrain and with winding roads and lots of trees. These cemeteries were not just for the dead to lie in, but were for the living to stroll through and picnic in.

In an era when people did not distance themselves from death as we do, and when there were few or no public parks, rural cemeteries made it possible for urban dwellers, especially the poor, to experience a pastoral setting not far from their flats and factories.

It was fall when we walked through Green Hill in 1982. The sky was a rare deep blue because there was little humidity. The temperature was perfect and the leaves had come straight out of a Crayola fat crayon box. As we walked and talked, we split a single candy bar three ways.

Never has chocolate tasted so good.

As my wife and I grew older, we worked our way up from poverty, and we were able to take our eldest son and our other children to The Great Escape and other more expensive entertainment venues. But the walk in Green Hill remains, in the words of Australian poet, Harry “Breaker” Harbord Morant, “a memory to be hoarded.”

I went back to Green Hill Cemetery this past Saturday. Montgomery County Historian Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar was leading a tour titled “Abolitionism and African American Life in Amsterdam.”

The tour lasted 90 minutes, and we learned about Amsterdam’s reputation in the 19th century as an “abolition hole.” Prominent men and women — industrialists, merchants, capitalists and farmers, like Chandler Bartlett, James Bronson, George W.J. Brownson, Ellis and Ruth Clizbe, Henry M. Neff and Betsy Reynolds Voorhees — risked the loss of reputation and business as abolitionists. Bartlett, Clizbe and others purposely broke the law to help fugitive slaves get to Canada.

Most of these abolitionists were members of the Second Presbyterian Church and were motivated by their Christian faith. Clizbe left the church for a time because the Presbyterians allowed slave-holders to be members and because the Rev. M.S. Goodale, who was privately opposed to slavery, would not speak out against it publicly.

At the end of the tour, Kelly said she had a surprise for us and led us to a grave with a small marker with the name Bruce Anderson on it. The name did not mean a thing to me before Saturday, although it should have. Anderson, who died in Amsterdam in 1922, was one of a small number of African-American Civil War soldiers to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But that was not the only surprise. During the tour, an elderly man followed us in his car. He would get out and lean on his cane at each stop. He was handsome and looked to be in his 80s.

At the last stop, Kelly introduced him, “This is Ambrose Anderson, Bruce Anderson’s grandson.” Ambrose knew nothing about his grandfather until a few years ago, when Kelly discovered the connection.

But there was more. Ambrose Anderson, who lives outside of Gloversville, had his own story. He was one of the first African-American Marines, entering World War II in 1943 only two years after the Marines were desegregated. He was part of the Montford Point Marines, an outfit not as well-known as the Tuskegee Airmen or Harlem Hellfighters, but which also experienced both war and discrimination.

Bruce Anderson won his medal at Fort Fisher, where he volunteered with some other men to cut down some palisades in advance of the main body of troops. He did not receive his Medal of Honor until 1914.

Ambrose Anderson fought at Iwo Jima in 1945. He, along with former New York City Mayor David Dinkins and the other Montford Point Marines, were finally recognized for their service in 2012 with a Congressional Gold Medal.

Not all visits to cemeteries are positive, but this one was. Like the one in 1982, Saturday’s walk through Green Hill Cemetery is “a memory to be hoarded.”

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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