You may miss it as you drive down Route 416, but the African-American cemetery in Montgomery is full of uncovered history.
“African-American burial grounds are scattered all over, and there could be one in someone’s backyard and they don’t know,” said Ashley Biagini, a historian working on the cemetery’s revitalization committee.
What You Need To Know
- Historians have uncovered runaway slave notices and “for sale” notices for slaves dating back to 17th and 18th century Montgomery
- The Montgomery African-American cemetery has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1996
- The town hired renowned sculptor Vinnie Bagwell to re-design the site using bronze, stone, and iron
Biagini and Mercedes Ortiz are historians trying to bring dignity to people who endured some of this nation’s worst moments. Biagini is a scholar on slavery in the Hudson Valley, and Ortiz is a member of the social justice group 845 Unity.
Using documents from the 17th and 18th centuries, they’re trying to piece together the past of the enslaved Africans who once lived in Montgomery and could be buried here.
“This works,” Ortiz said. “It’s healing, and it’s forcing me to have those uncomfortable prickly conversations, and it’s all part of the process. And when we have those conversations, we can move forward as a society.”
Events of this past summer led to a call to renew the Montgomery cemetery, a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. The town formed a committee to uncover the history of the site and reimagine it as a historic destination.
“It has the potential to draw a lot of people’s attention because there are so few intact burial grounds; it’s the second largest one in New York State,” said Vinnie Bagwell, the lead artist and project manager.
To do that, the town hired renowned Bagwell, a sculptor, as the lead artist and project manager for the site. Bagwell is known for works such as the Ella Fitzgerald statue in Yonkers and, more recently, a statue coming to Central Park replacing the one of the controversial J. Marion Sims, who inhumanely experimented on female slaves.
“I think that for African-Americans, we want to connect to the past,” said Bagwell. “It helps us to understand where we are now, and it gives us a point of departure for planning for the future.”
To give the site an 18th century feel, Bagwell will build with stone, iron, and bronze and create two statues that will rise above the site.
“This is a place to show respect and homage to these people who gave their lives to build the Empire State,” said Bagwell. “They deserve to be respected; they deserve to be acknowledged; they deserve to be honored.”