Group works to restore resting place for ‘people of colour’

KINDERHOOK–The Kinderhook Memorial Library hosted a presentation last Saturday about the Persons of Color Cemetery in Rothermel Park. Village historian Ruth Piwonka and members of a group of residents who have worked to restore the cemetery’s headstones spoke to a full house at the library about the history of the site and the re-dedication ceremony planned for this Saturday, May 13.

The 13 legible headstones in the park are all that survives of the cemetery, which is next to the baseball fields on Rothermel Avenue. The site is now on the National Register of Historic Places and there will be an informational sign posted next headstones. The sign, designed by Rich Kraham, will be unveiled at 11 a.m. during the May 13 re-dedication.

According to Kinderhook resident Warren Applegate, who has been involved with restoring the gravesite for many years, the group has raised about $4,000 for the restoration and sign. He said that the village, which manages the donations, has received a grant from Furthermore, a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, as well as donations from the Kinderhook Runners Club OK5K and from anonymous private donors.

Photo by Scott Langley

Mr. Applegate said at the library presentation May 6 that the cemetery project was not asking for donations, “but all of this costs money.”

Ms. Piwonka explained that there may be more than 500 people buried on the plot of land set aside in 1813 by village resident John Rogers in his will. Mr. Rogers lived nearby on Broad Street and owned the land that would become Rothermel Park. According the sign that will be placed at the site, in his will Mr. Rogers directed that part of his land should be used “for a cemetery for the people of colour in the said town of Kinderhook to use for that purpose and none other.”

Ms. Piwonka and Mr. Applegate both pointed out that the surviving headstones, most of which are for the graves of children, are not in their original locations but have been moved over the years. Mr. Applegate said the cemetery restoration group has a map of the original plot of land.

Hollis Seamon, whose property abuts the cemetery’s current location, said that over the many years since the cemetery closed sometime around 1875 the stones have survived and the land had not been developed. She said that there have been “a number of people who kept it that way.”

Ms. Piwonka has looked through old census records and village documents about the cemetery and the names of the people on headstones. She noted that the spelling of names was not always consistent at that time. And she said that she and other members of the group are working with Underground Railroad History Project. The path for runaway slaves in the area went along the river in Hudson and by land through Chatham and Old Chatham, she said.

The group has stressed over the years that this was not a “slave cemetery” as some people have called it. “That was a terrible misnomer,” Ms. Seamon said.

New York State began to abolish slavery in 1799 though the state’s Emancipation Act, which says that “any child born to a enslaved woman after July 4, 1799 was deemed free, but that child would have to serve their mother’s enslaver until the age of 28 if a male and 25 if a female,” according to the book “In Defiance: Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley 1735-1831” by Susan Stessin-Cohn and Ashley Hurlburt-Biagini (Black Dome Press, 2016). That legislation was followed by laws that said, “all children of either sex born to slave mothers after March 31, 1817, and before July 4, 1827, were to be freed after the age of 21. All slaves born before July 4, 1799, would be freed on July 4, 1827.”

One member of the audience who said he’d volunteered as a tour guide at local historic sites was surprised at how many people didn’t know there was slavery in New York, including this part of the state. “There is a lot of education that needs to be done,” he said.

Mr. Applegate agreed saying that the group was “producing education information.”

The group working to maintain the cemetery and the headstones is a looking for people who might have a family connection to the people buried in the cemetery. The names on the headstones include Isabel Leggett, Charles E. VanVolkenburg, Jacob Toby, two members of the Springer family, several children in the Burget family and several children in the Collins family. Anyone with information can call 518 758-9882.

The re-dedication ceremony is open to the public and will be held at the site in Rothermel Park on Saturday, May 13 at 11 a.m.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email .

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