Boneyarn Poet and Cemetery Stewards Give Voices to Ancestors for Juneteenth

Poet David Mills, a Fellow at the Schomburg Center, gave a positively electrifying performance on Sunday, June 11th, as he read works from his collection “Boneyarn” which pays tribute to the 15,000 forgotten and nameless Black women and men buried in downtown Manhattan at Wall Street. The event was a commemoration of Juneteenth co-sponsored by the Jay Heritage Center(JHC) and Friends of the African American Cemetery (FOAAC) and funded through a generous $3000 grant from ArtsWestchester.

FOAAC and JHC have been partnering since 2010 to restore the stones and narratives of Black individuals interred in Rye who have been erased from the pages of history. Suzanne Clary, JHC President, welcomed the group and introduced Dave Thomas, Co- founder of FOAAC. Thomas in turn introduced Mills and highlighted the poet’s career including a period when Mills drew creative inspiration from living in the home of Black poet and social activist Langston Hughes. Mills gave voice to the spirits of the ancestors but also laid bare the agonies of those individuals – chimney sweeps, cellar-relegated house cooks and servants – literally crushed and deformed by slavery. Mills’ presentation reminded people of how easily humanity can be erased from history by neglect and unchecked development. It was a powerful and thought provoking afternoon.

Attendees included fellow Black cemetery stewards from the Rossville AME Zion Church and Rossville Cemetery in Sandy Ground, Staten Island, the oldest Black settlement in the nation. Rye City Councilperson Lori Fontanes joined Suzanne Clary and other JHC trustees in welcoming Janise LaBoard and Yvette Jordan to the event. JHC, FOAAC and advocates for Sandy Ground have already begun work to collaborate on raising broader awareness about unmarked or neglected Black and Indigenous burying grounds throughout New York State, Westchester and Rye. Also in attendance was Rye Town Councilperson and FOACC Co-founder Joan Grangenois-Thomas and Carver Center Executive Director Anne Bradner.

The poetry event was followed by yet another special Juneteenth gathering at the African American Cemetery on Saturday morning June 17th with government officials and volunteers out in force to commemorate the holiday but also complete a service project cleaning stones. Some of those present included Town of Rye Supervisor Gary Zuckerman, NY State Senator Shelley B. Mayer, NY State Assemblyman Steve Otis, Westchester County Legislator Catherine Parker, Mamaroneck Trustee Leilani Yizar, Rye Brook Mayor Jason Klein, City of Rye Councilperson Lori Fontanes and many others. Zuckerman announced receipt of a new grant of $30,000 from the National Park Service to fund the search for unmarked burials at the cemetery. The grant will help the Town of Rye and FOAAC create a new plot plan for the landmarked site.

Top gallery, photos by Kim Crichlow; Bottom gallery, photos by Suzanne Clary and Lori Fontanes