“Honor, respect, celebrate”: the manor joins forces with archaeologists and locals


The loud and clear voice rose and fell in the clearing under tall white pines, a rhythmic hand drum. The song, sung in an Algonquin-singing Shinecock dialect by Shane Weeks, was one of thanksgiving.

On Friday, Mr. Weeks, co-chair of the Shinnecock Nation Graves Protection Warrior Society, held some 70 people in ecstasy as they gathered at the recently cleaned up Afro-native cemetery at Sylvester Manor.

The group had come together to celebrate an extraordinary partnership between the indigenous peoples of the East End, the Mansion and a team of archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts, who will work together to map the graves and identify the remains.

Those buried at the Mansion could include Manhansett’s who have been in the East End for 12,000 years, enslaved Africans and Caribbean, and those who were under contract, a form of slavery that had an end date.

Archaeologist and anthropologist Stephen Mrozowski, Ph.D., leads the UMass team. Speaking ahead of the ceremony on a gravel road under the hillside cemetery, he said the mission will first be to find out “what’s here”. It is possible that the grave is larger than the small clearing on the hill, marked by a large boulder with a time-parched engraved inscription that reads: “Sylvester Manor Colored Cemetery.”

The headstone at the Afro-indigenous cemetery has memorabilia left by visitors, many as a result of the 2020 Black Lives Matter walk. (Courtesy photo)

Anecdotal evidence indicates that there could be as many as 300 souls buried in the cemetery. White pines standing as sentries on the hill were planted around 1900, in the belief that the fragrant needles would keep the air clean and disease free around the burial site.

According to the mansion, Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, a free-born woman of color, would be the last person to be buried in the Afro-native cemetery, in 1908.

Story of a crime

Shelter Island was owned by the Sylvester family who, along with other investors, bought it from an English aristocrat in 1652 to create an 8,000-acre estate as a “supply plantation”, serving the sugar cane plantations. Caribbean.

Since sugar, or “white gold” as it was called, was a cash crop of immense proportions in the 17th century, every inch of land available in the Caribbean was sown with sugar cane. Everything else, including wheat, meat and other foodstuffs, and wood to make barrels for transporting sugar, had to be imported.

Sylvester and his partners had been drawn to the island’s white oak forests for harvesting and making the sugar barrels, as well as the island’s easy access to the Atlantic. In addition to their household provisions, other goods arrived with the Sylvesters – a slave family from Jaquero, his wife Hannah and their daughter Hope, the first Africans to set foot on the island.

In 1680, there would be nearly 30 slaves living at the Mansion, which historian Ira Berlin said was New England’s largest slave population.

Discover the past

Archaeologists have set up digital monitoring and mapping systems under the cemetery, using radar and GPS technology to get a feel for what lies beneath the thick carpet of pine needles, a non-invasive method – by opposition to digging – to find if there are any graves, then map them.

From left to right, archaeologist and anthropologist Stephen Mrozowski, Donnamarie Barnes, curator / archivist of Sylvester Manor and Shane Weeks. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

The project began on September 24 and is the first phase of an ongoing effort that will last for three years.

Mr Weeks, near the rock marking the cemetery, pointed out the hill and said the Shinnecock people and the northeastern tribes “make our cemeteries on the hills facing west just like this one”. Professor Mrozowski, standing next to him, said the grounds leading away from the hill could contain many more remains

“Might is the word,” he warned.

The collaborative effort includes not only the Shinnecock, Manor and UMass, but also representatives of the Long Island tribes. It will be partially funded by the Hart Family Fund for Small Towns of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and by a federal grant from the 400 Years of African American History Commission.

“For the first time in 150 years, we are working with people whose ancestors have been buried,” said Prof Mrozowski. “We never invited them, the people we say we honor and love. This project is the first time in my work as an archaeologist that I do not ask myself any questions about my ethics.

Sacred ground

One of the people gathered at the top of the hill at the start of the ceremony was Reggie Johnson, the chef at Camp Quinipet, a young African-American man. Originally from Alabama, Mr Johnson said the history of tribal and enslaved people has become available in recent years in the South, chronicling their important role in the culture and history of the region.

But in the North, it was “different, more hidden,” he said, and he had come to the Manor ceremony because he is always eager to research and learn as much as possible about his. new home in the North.

The people gathered in a large semicircle which had been cleaned up by Gunnar Wissemann, manager of the mansion and grounds. Beautiful wooden benches, made by Mr. Wissemann, stood on the hill, perfect for resting or spending time contemplating the scene.

Stephen Searl, executive director of the Manor, referred to the historic collaboration “as a long wait” and thanked project participants as “understanding and preserving the sacred ground”.

Mr. Weeks spoke of his people’s belief that “you must do what you must do today, so that the next seven generations will know who they are.” We met the settlers in good faith, but we were not treated fairly. Our job when our ancestors are discovered is to make sure they rest in peace.

Speaking of remembrance, he noted that “our history was not learned in schools, it had to be taught to us by our elders”. He added that: “Our people have struggled. We have fought against two types of genocide. Physical genocide and paper genocide, where we have been written out of history and the places where we have lived.

The partnership to map and record the burial site was a start, Mr Weeks said, then sang the thanksgiving song.

Donnamarie Barnes, curator / archivist of the Manor, thanked everyone for coming, then recited the names of those known to have been buried under the thick carpet of pine needles, her voice cracking with emotion: ” The slaves: Hannah, Jacquero, Hope, and Black John. Free people of color, once enslaved: Violet, Mathilde, Cato, London, Comus Fanning and Dido. Isaac Pharaoh, a man from Montaukett, entered the Manor as a child. David Hempstead Sr., a free born colored man. Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, a free born woman of color, daughter of Dido and an unnamed white man.

Ms Barnes paused and said: “We honor you, respect you and celebrate you.”


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