The strong clear voice rose and fell in the clearing under tall white pine trees, a hand-held drum keeping time. The song, sung in a lilting Shinnecock dialect of Algonquin by Shane Weeks, was one of thanksgiving.
Mr. Weeks, co-chair of the Shinnecock Nation Graves Protection Warrior Society, held some 70 people rapt as they gathered at the recently cleared Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground at Sylvester Manor on Friday.
The group had assembled to celebrate an extraordinary partnership among the indigenous people of the East End, the Manor and a team of archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts, who will work together on mapping gravesites and eventually identifying remains.
The people buried at the Manor might include Manhansett people who have been on the East End for 12,000 years, enslaved African and Caribbean people, and those who were indentured, a form of slavery that had an end date.
Archaeologist and anthropologist Stephen Mrozowski, Ph.D., leads the team from UMass. Speaking before the ceremony on a gravel road below the hillside cemetery, he said the mission will be to first find out “what’s here.” There’s a possibility that the gravesite might be larger than the small clearing on the hill, marked by a large boulder with a carved inscription withered by time that reads: “Burial Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor.”
Anecdotal evidence says there could be as many as 300 souls interred in the cemetery. The white pines standing like sentinels on the hill were planted around 1900, in the belief the sweet-smelling needles would keep the air clean and disease-free around the burial site.
According to the Manor, Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, a freeborn woman of color, is said to be the last person to be buried in the Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground, in 1908.
History of a crime
Shelter Island was owned by the Sylvester family who, with other investors, had purchased it from an English aristocrat in 1652 to create an 8,000-acre estate as a “provisioning plantation,” servicing the sugar plantations of the West Indies.
Since sugar, or “white gold” as it was known, was a cash crop of immense proportions in the 17th century, every available inch of land in the Caribbean was sown with sugar cane. Everything else, including wheat, meat and other foodstuffs, and the wood to make barrels to transport the sugar, had to be imported.
Sylvester and his partners had been attracted to the Island’s forests of white oak to harvest and manufacture the sugar barrels, plus the Island’s easy access to the Atlantic. Along with their household provisions, other property arrived with the Sylvesters — an enslaved family of Jaquero, his wife Hannah and their daughter Hope, the first Africans to set foot on the Island.
By 1680, there would be close to 30 enslaved people living at the Manor, which, according to the historian Ira Berlin, was the largest population of slaves in New England.
Uncovering the past
The archaeologists have set up digital monitoring and mapping systems below the cemetery, using radar and GPS technology to get an idea of what’s under the thick carpet of pine needles, a non-invasive — as opposed to digging — method of finding if there are graves, and then mapping them.
The project started Sept. 24, and is the first phase of an ongoing effort that will last three years.
Mr. Weeks, near the boulder marking the cemetery, pointed up the hill and said that the Shinnecock people and Northeastern tribes “make our burial grounds on western-facing hillsides, just like this one.” Professor Mrozowski, standing next to him, said the grounds flowing away from the hill could contain many more remains
“Could is the word,” he cautioned.
The collaborative effort includes not just the Shinnecock, the Manor and UMass, but also representatives of the tribes of Long Island. It will be partially funded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hart Family Fund for Small Towns, and a federal grant from the 400 Years of African American History Commission.
“For the first time in 150 years, we’re working with the people whose ancestors have been buried,” Professor Mrozowski said. “We’ve never invited them in, the people we say we honor and love. This project is the first time in my work as an archaeologist that I’m having no questions about my ethics.”
One of the people gathered at the top of the hill as the ceremony was beginning was Reggie Johnson, the head chef at Camp Quinipet, a young African-American man. Originally from Alabama, Mr. Johnson said that the history of tribal and enslaved people had become available over the last few years in the South, chronicling their large role in the culture and history of region.
But in the North, it was “different, more hidden,” he said, and had come to the Manor’s ceremony because he’s always eager to research and learn as much as he can about his new home in the North.
People assembled in a large semi-circle that had been cleared by the Manor’s House and Ground Manager Gunnar Wissemann. Handsome wood benches, crafted by Mr. Wissemann, stood on the hill, perfect for a rest or to spend time to contemplate the scene.
Stephen Searl, executive director of the Manor, spoke about the historic collaboration “as a long time coming,” and thanked the participants in the project as “understanding and preserving sacred ground.”
Mr. Weeks spoke of his people’s belief that “you must do what you need to do today, so the next seven generations know who they are. We met the settlers in good faith, but we were not treated fairly. Our work, when our ancestors are uncovered, is to be sure they rest in peace.”
Speaking of remembering, he noted that “our history wasn’t learned in schools, it had to be taught to us by our elders.” He added that, “Our people have struggled. We have struggled against two kinds of genocide. Physical genocide and paper genocide, where we were written out of history and the places where we lived.”
The partnership to map and record the burial site was a start, Mr. Weeks said, and then he sang the song of thanksgiving.
Donnamarie Barnes, curator/archivist of the Manor, thanked everyone for coming, and then recited the names of those known to have been buried beneath the thick carpet of pine needles, her voice cracking with emotion: “The enslaved: Hannah, Jacquero, Hope, and Black John. The free people of color, formerly enslaved: Violet, Matilda, Cato, London, Comus Fanning, and Dido. Isaac Pharaoh, a Montaukett man, indentured to the Manor as a child. David Hempstead Sr., a free-born man of color. Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, a free born woman of color, the daughter of Dido and an unnamed white man.”
Ms. Barnes paused and said: “We honor you, respect you, and celebrate you.”