African American Cemeteries History Uncovered: Rhinebeck Cemetery’s Section E and Mt. Zion African American Burial Ground in Kingston
Recent research at two local cemeteries uncovers new facts about early African American settlements in the Valley
At war: African-American soldiers fight for the Union Army at an abandoned farmhouse in Dutch Gap, Virginia, during the Civil War
Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
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“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner’s famous sentiment has recently been proven true for a handful of Hudson Valley historians and researchers. Two groups — one working in Rhinebeck, the other in Kingston — have uncovered previously unknown information about vibrant African American communities that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their inhabitants included slaves, former slaves, veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and townspeople of both high and low stature. This unearthed past offers new information about the lives of African Americans in the Valley, and — at the same time — raises many questions that remain unanswered.
The Rhinebeck research was conducted by Vassar College students under the direction of professors Brian McAdoo and Quincy T. Mills. Last year, the Dutchess County Historical Society asked McAdoo, associate professor of earth science, to investigate Revolutionary War veteran Andrew Frazier. Frazier — a “landed” African American — owned a farm in Milan, an unusual circumstance at the time. He and his family were thought to have been buried in a portion of Rhinebeck Cemetery called “Section E.” This half-acre of land, also known as the “Negro Burial Ground,” was siven for the internment of “people of color” by Mary Garrettson, the daughter of a noted abolitionist preacher, in 1853.
Although a few monuments remain, most of the burial sites in Section E are now unmarked. McAdoo’s class took geophysical surveys of the site using high-tech tools that included electrical resistance, ground penetrating radar analysis, and something called cesium-vapor magnetometry — “a glorified metal detector,” says McAdoo. As they surveyed the site, the professor realized he was onto something bigger than a geologist could interpret. “Geophysicists are good at counting things, like the number of burial plots, but I don’t understand the important historical questions,” he admits. Fortunately, he ran into Mills at the Vassar gym, who does. An assistant professor of history, Mills focuses on African American urban and business history, racial segregation, and social and political movements. “I told him what I was doing, and invited him to participate in the research,” McAdoo says.
“I was teaching a class on African American history up to 1865, and I thought this would be a fine project for my students and make history come alive,” Mills says. “They jumped at the idea.” So while McAdoo’s class collected physical data, Mills’s students pored over deeds, land sales, birth and death certificates, and other records at the Dutchess County Clerk’s office and in the archives of Rhinebeck’s Starr Library. They learned that in the 1800s, the area had a more dynamic African American community than had been previously known. Besides the prosperity of the Frazier family in Milan, there was also a neighborhood of artisans who lived on Oak Street in the village of Rhinebeck.
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