“African Cemetery for Black Residents of Rye Town and Black Civil War Veterans”

Discovery in Greenwood Union Cemetery, Rye (NY)

About ten years ago, while jogging through the Greenwood Union Cemetery near my then home in Rye, New York, I stumbled upon a little mud track leading away from the cemetery. It led to another cemetery whose perimeter included a swamp (or wetlands, depending on how you look at it), Interstate 95 (I-95), and the Greenwood Union Cemetery. Drawn in at first by the mud track and then by the sign off to the side that declared this to be a historical site, I continued on to see what turned out to be the “African Cemetery for black residents of Rye town and black civil war veterans” dating from 1860 to 1964. The place was unkempt and on one side, quite noisy: This was where the cemetery abutted I-95.

sketch of entrance to black cemetery, rye (new york)

I had been jogging in Greenwood for quite some time and never before saw any sign of this second cemetery. I also never heard any of the noise from the highway when I jogged there.  Greenwood is a peaceful, serene, well manicured cemetery. It has a little stream or waterway running through it, some lovely mausoleums, including a few with stained glass windows, and tombstones that tell you that some of those interred there were descendants of the voyagers on The Mayflower. The “African” cemetery was, by contrast, poorly maintained, unkempt. Still, someone had taken care to place little American flags by some of the markers. I came back over the course of several months and took many photographs. I never saw another soul in that place, whereas on the other side where white was separated from black by a stone wall, there was always life and visitors and staff maintaining the grounds.

Today when I did a Google search I was quite happy to see that others had taken notice of this special little place and are now honoring its residents. It has been over ten years since I first stumbled upon the black, colored, African cemetery. Dearest little Vernita, your tombstone with the lamb is still etched in my memory. “Poor little lamb”, it said. You who had never seen Africa, who was born on American soil, who was but a baby when you passed on and straight out of this world, lay buried in a segregated cemetery in what the North designated to be an “African” cemetery.

A Tribute to the Veterans in a Segregated Northern Cemetery

I’ve misplaced many of the photographs that I took back when I discovered the place. But here are the tombstones of three veterans plus photographs of civilian residents of black Rye: mothers, babies, daughters, sons and grandparents that somehow remained in my files.

Above is the grave marker of Joseph Thomas, a Civil War veteran of the Connecticut Twenty-Ninth Colored Regiment, Company C. A few letters written by the men of this regiment can be accessed at http://conn29th.org/stories.htm.

Below are the grave markers/tombstones of two more veterans,  Charles A. Francis, Jr., and Eugene Rogers. Both are veterans of World War I.

Private Charles A. Francis was a member of the “Harlem Hellfighters”. A good source of information on his infantry is to be found at http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/369th-infantry-regiment-harlem-hellfighters.

Eugene Rogers close up. Are you resting near your momma and poppa?
Abram and Hannah Francis, Husband and Wife

Here lies Abram Francis and his wife Hannah. He died in 1881, aged 79 years while she died in 1895 at age 88 years. Are you related to Charles A. Francis, the World War I veteran above?

Abram & Hannah Francis, i

Mary E. Harris

Mary E. Harris, 1890-1949. You lived to see World Wars I and II. How many men from your family were lost to those wars? What stories can you tell? And why so close to Eugene Rogers who died just one year after you did? Did you know each other? Were you friends? Relatives?

Mary A. Nash

And Mary A. Nash, you were but 18 years old when you died in 1896. What was your life like in the short years you spent on this earth? In 1892, when you were but 14 years old, “the number of lynchings in America had peaked at 230 and continued at rates of over 100 murders per year.” (See, Vassar College’s Website, http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/prejudice.html.) Then too, the Southern states invented new measures to disenfranchise black voters, not unlike what happened all across the nation in the 2012 election campaign, Obama vs. Romney. Another damning fact about life in these here United States is that within a few months of your departure from this world, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld ‘separate but equal’, in its Plessy v. Furguson ruling. The irony of it all was that separate was anything but equal.

Harriet Branch

Little Harriet Branch, born September 9, 1905, died March 19, 1906. What struck you down during your 6th month of life? What things could you have done, would you have done, had you lived?

Harriet Branch, close up
Mother, Grandma and Grandpa


Up against I-95

With barely any space to spare, the I-95 highway runs up close to the “African” cemetery. I don’t remember it abutting the Greenwood Union Cemetery this close up at any point of its perimeter. Irrelevant? Coincidental?

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