Just a few years ago, two dozen black war veterans’ graves were hidden behind decades of weeds and trash in the Town of Rye until community members came together to clean the cemetery up.
Now a local New York organization is heading efforts to fully restore the town’s only African-American cemetery and turn it into a site honoring the history of the people buried there.
According to Newsday, Building Community Bridges wants to preserve the graves of the 22 black war veterans who saw combat in the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War I and II, along with almost one hundred other African-American graves in the cemetery. The organization will research the history of the people buried there and install kiosks that provide that information to visitors.
The project will also focus on paving a path into the cemetery and repairing headstones.
“It’s a part of our history, and we believe it’s a forgotten party of our history,” David Thomas, president of Building Community Bridges, said. “We all believe the Town of Rye’s history is a common one, and just as we memorialize the John Jay Heritage Center, we should memorialize the African-American cemetery as well.”
Robinette Robinson, 75, was a young child the first time she visited the cemetery. She’d come along with a friend whose father wanted to search for his father’s grave and decorate it.
“It was horrible,” she said. “The weeds were waist-high. I was frightened. I thought there were snakes there. It was like a jungle.”
She hadn’t been back to the graveyard until a few years ago and she was surprised by the site’s clean appearance. She was even able to find the tombstone of her great-great-grandfather, Robert Purdy, an escaped slave who fought for the Union in the Civil War.
The Town of Rye cemetery had been active until 1964, when the Civil Rights Act became law. Then about six years ago, the site was listed on the national and state Register of Historic Places, which led to initial cleaning efforts. Now Thomas is hoping the restoration project will bring visitors to the cemetery.
“We want people to learn about what the activities were for everyone in the Town of Rye, not just for Caucasians,” Thomas said. “Most history is famously that, and now we have a broader perspective of what life was like in the 1800s and early 1900s in the Town of Rye.”