Tour and Exhibit Immerse Attendees in Westchester’s African-American History

On a sunny Saturday morning, more than 130 visitors poured into the African American Cemetery in Rye — the first of several events co-sponsored by Westchester County’s African American Advisory Board and timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in America in 1619.

Docents led tours of the cemetery, sprinkling their talks with historical and biographical detail about the more than 300 African Americans who are buried at the cemetery. The burial ground, which is adjacent to the Greenwood Union Cemetery, was established more than a century and a half ago and includes veterans from the Civil War.

African American Advisory Board member Rabab Abdalla reads a poem by Phyllis Wheatley, the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry

As visitors ambled past, Boy Scouts from local Troop 400 and other volunteers demonstrated how to gently clean the headstones of built-up dirt and debris with a special solution. Descendants of those buried in the cemetery — including Cpl. Samuel Bell of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the unit whose story was chronicled in the 1989 movie “Glory” — mingled with guests and told stories about their forbears.

Volunteers like David Thomas of the Friends of the African American Cemetery have spent a decade working to restore the cemetery after years of neglect. Falling trees sometimes broke headstones in two, and erosion and the elements had obscured many other stones.

Later that afternoon, the crowd decamped to the 1907 Van Norden Carriage House at the Jay Heritage Center for a photo exhibit including artifacts loaned to the JHC by families connected to the cemetery. Suzanne Clary, the JHC’s board president, explained that the goal of the exhibit was to celebrate the rich lives of the descendants of those buried in the cemetery.

Members of the American Women of African Heritage L-R Gloria Welcome, JoAnn Dudley, Gwen Cort, Thelma Gordon, and Mary Lane Cobb

The stunning artifacts — loaned by descendants like Carol Ubosi, Robinette Robinson, and Donna Lockley — included a beautiful, intricately embroidered corset, a delicate hat from the Civil War era, and a penmanship book in which a student had written “justice and injustice” over and over again.

But perhaps the most striking piece was a reproduction of a letter, dated April 30, 1865 and written by Edward Purdy, describing a trip to Washington, DC, in the days after Lincoln’s assassination. “I have seen the president’s house and wife and the president himself,” Purdy wrote. “I have seen the man that kill[ed] the president and all that had a hand in it. Booth is his name.”

The day’s events were co-sponsored by the Westchester County African American Advisory Board, the African American History in Westchester Commemoration Committee,  Jay Heritage Center, Friends of the African American Cemetery, and the Westchester County Historical Society. Additional programs sponsored by these committees are being planned now and will continue through 2019 and 2020. For more information contact AAHW400CC Chair Kisha Skipper at aahw400cc@gmail.com 

This collaborative community program was made possible by a generous grant from Con Edison. Photos by Kim Crichlow Photography. See more photos on our JHC Facebook page 

Suzanne Clary, Rabab Abdalla, Naji Glover, Carol Ubosi, NY State Assemblyman Steve Otis, Christopher Grant and Tamika Rose
Dave Thomas. NY State Assemblyman Steve Otis and Keith Yizar with scouts from Troop 400 who helped clean stones at the Rye African-American Cemetery
Naji Glover and Dave Thomas listen on as Carol Ubosi talks about her ancestors buried at the cemetery
Friends and fellow descendants embrace each other