I get physical pangs of guilt when I walk into a graveyard, camera in hand. It feels like I’m disturbing the dead. But when I heard of the Civil War era African American Cemetery in Rye, New York—right on my doorstep—I knew I had to go anyway. It’s a hugely significant graveyard: an important part of local history both because of its African American and Civil War links.
Although it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s not an easy cemetery to find. I knew it was adjacent to Rye’s Greenwood Union Cemetery (founded 1837), but it took me wandering through almost all of that gigantic cemetery to find the one acre African-American one. It seems to be a separate cemetery, marked off by a rough stone wall. There are no signposts, except right outside it. The entrance is a long, muddy path. I expect after rain that it’s almost impassible.
It’s so sad to walk through this cemetery; many of the gravestones are in a terrible shape. I know the Town of Rye has a restoration project underway, but it’s a couple of years since their website has been updated and I couldn’t see any signs of restoration in progress.
Many of the plots have subsided, gravestones jut out at odd angles. The alphabetic marker stones, letting you know what surnames are buried where are often missing, poking out of the earth in strange ways or lying on top of the ground. Only one or two are still in place.
It’s hard to find out much about the history of the cemetery except that it was donated by Underhill Halsted and his wife Elizabeth to
be forever after kept and used for the purposes of a cemetery or burial place for the colored inhabitants of the said Town of Rye and its vicinity free and clear of any charge therefore
It was used in this way—as a segregated graveyard—for over 100 years until 1964. 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, outlawing racial segregation.
Many graves are so weathered, I couldn’t read them. At least two of them had always been blank, anonymous.
Large areas of the graveyard were never used. Nettie Peterson sits lonely in the middle of the plot. It’s hard to even see her gravestone among the fallen Autumn leaves,
The grave of Sarah C Smith is heartbreaking. A little sculpture of a dog yaps at the base of her gravestone. She died in 1840, aged four.
Incidentally, Sarah C Smith’s grave represents a conundrum. Everything I’ve read said the Halsted’s gave the land for use as a cemetery in 1860, but Sarah died in 1840. Was she reburied here? I read and reread the date—it definitely says 1840.
Vernita Covington lived for just 15 days. Born on July 21st, 1938, she died on August 4th. A carved lamb sits on top of her broken gravestone.
Another one that’s tough to look at simply says “Baby, 1870″.
But the moment that hit hardest—and I’m not sure why—was when I found, in a corner of the cemetery, the grave of Endless Hudson.
Over here you’re right next to the on-ramp for the I-95. The din of cars is unceasing. There is no peace here. The land in this corner is slightly lower, but I don’t think it’s subsidence. Endless sits slightly apart from the others.
Endless Hudson was born in 1913, fought in World War II and died in 1950. Despite looking around online, that’s more or less all I know about him. Endless Hudson, one of the most wonderful, evocative names I’ve ever heard. I wish I knew more about him.
This cemetery can’t be left in this condition. It’s too important historically and too important for the families of those interred here to let it continue to fall into ruin like this.
The Town of Rye Civil War Era African American Historical Cemetery
Address: Simplest way I can tell you to get there is this: go to Greenwood Union Cemetery (215 North Street, Rye, NY 10580) and then follow the directions on this map to get to the African American Cemetery.