African-American Cemetery Given New Life, Kiosk For Memorial Day Dedication

RYE, N.Y. – Once covered in overgrown bamboo trees, grass and fungus, the African-American Cemetery in Rye will be re-introduced to the public Saturday, May 24, at a Memorial Day dedication and unveiling of a three-sided graphic kiosk.

David Thomas scrapes off linchen, a fungus, off a grave stone as part of the effort to restore the African-American Cemetery in Rye.
David Thomas scrapes off linchen, a fungus, off a grave stone as part of the effort to restore the African-American Cemetery in Rye. Photo Credit: Brian Donnelly

Rye Girl Scout Anna-Kay Smickle, of Girl Scout Troop 1838, researched the information that will appear on the sign as her Silver Star Project.

The kiosk will feature photos of some of the more prominent people buried at the cemetery, found inside the Greenwood Union Cemetery on 215 North St. Rye. All cemeteries were segregated until 1964, making this a refuge for those who had nowhere else to bury their loved ones.

The veterans include more than 20 from the Civil War, one from the Spanish-American War, two from World War 2 and three from World War 1, according to David Thomas, a consultant with the Town of Rye and member of its African-American Cemetery Committee.

They are currently raising money to identify as many of the 200-plus burials that don’t have a grave stone.

There are 289 confirmed burials altogether in the cemetery, including people from White Plains, Mamaroneck, Harrison and other nearby towns. 

“At some point we need to discover where these bodies are and hopefully in the future identify who they are and fit places and stories and names to those interred there,” he said.

Walking through the small square cemetery, deeded to the town in 1860, the grave stones that are there tell the story of men like Robert Purdy, an escaped slave that fled to the north to start the Barry Avenue church in Mamaroneck. Another is the story of a sailor in the Navy who was in Washington the day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Others have unknown back stories.

Calvin Lewis, who lived from 1903 to 1945, is believed to be a World War 1 veteran. However, sitting beside his grave stone is a Battalion 192nd post, which Thomas said didn’t have any African-American soldiers. He said the committee is still trying to find out why the battalion post is there and what connection Lewis has to it.

For Thomas, the greatest part of restoring the cemetery has been getting to know the decendents of those buried there.

“To have a connection to the past like this is a personal thing,” he said. “Just like the Bells and the Purdys, it’s nice to know a decedent.”

He said someone new approaches them saying they have family buried there.

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