Around 1750, what’s now known as Pine Street was part of the tiny village of Kingston not yet consumed by development. It was also the final resting place for the people enslaved by Dutch settlers.
Almost 250 years later, on a summer day in 1990, it was the last spot on an archeological survey conducted for the city by historian Ed Ford and archeologist Joe Diamond.
What You Need To Know
- Africans, enslaved by Dutch settlers, were buried on what is now Pine Street in Kingston throughout the 18th century
- As the city expanded, the land was bought and developed over, and the cemetery went overlooked
- In 1990, an archeological survey of the city found the cemetery and set into motion a 32-year mission to preserve it
- Now owned by the Harambee cultural organization, the plan is to honor the enslaved and to turn it into an educational community center
Ford and Diamond were looking for the Pine Street cemetery. As they were walking, the owner of the street’s red barn asked them what they were doing.
“I told him we were looking for a cemetery,” Diamond said. “And he said ‘hold on a second,’ and came out with a box of human remains. So that’s how we knew we had the right locations.”
This was the start of a 32-year mission for Diamond, trying to make it a true resting place for the enslaved people buried there.
“You’re trying to, kind of, give people their ancestors back,” he said.
Usually, enslaved people were buried with stones or some kind of marker to designate a grave. But they haven’t found any of that at the Pine Street site, yet. To the passer-by, it looks like just another backyard.
“This one got overrun and it became private property,” Diamond explains. “And then people just owned everybody who was buried here.”
After a ground penetrating radar study of the land in 2019, Diamond says this could be the largest enslaved person burial ground in New York.
“It could be even larger than the African burial ground in New York City,” he said.
All of this work is only possible because of a massive fundraising campaign in 2019. When more than $200,000 was raised, it allowed the Harambee coalition to buy the private land, with assistance from Kingston Land Trust and Scenic Hudson.
“When I first came here, it was pain, it was hard,” said Tyrone Wilson, the executive director of Harambee, who wants to make the site an educational and cultural center for Kingston. It’s something he says he feels a duty to do.
“Our ancestors’ voices are being heard,” Wilson said. “I believe that we are their representation. I believe that we are doing everything that they wanted us to do.”
Wilson adds that once the weather is warmer, archeologists will exhume remains and begin DNA testing to find out who is buried there and to also find out where they were taken from.
“There was docking down on the Brooklyn docks; there was docking right here on the strand,” he said.
Work has already began on the inside of the building, where Wilson is sorting through boxes of historical documents to create a museum. And as he does, he says that the whole experience has made him look at his own ancestry, to try and find out more about his relatives with a DNA test. He says he does know that his great-grandmother was enslaved in South Carolina.
“When you can’t tap into your family line, I don’t know how you know who you are,” Wilson said. “I can only go as far as my grandmother’s mother, and that’s a picture and just some words that I heard.”
When Diamond published a research article about the cemetery in 2012, he titled it “Owned in Life, Owned in Death.” Wilson likes to say that the enslaved buried there are now free in death.
“They’re free. They’re in our care, the proper care,” he said. “That’s an honor to be a part of that feeling and to have the mentality that we have freed our ancestors in death.”