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An expansion of the slave grave historical article

Guest Commentary

The June 4, 2020, edition of The Millerton News ran a follow-up article by reporter Carol Kneeland to one that ran a year ago about the grave of a Black man, believed to be a former slave, named Thomas Stansbury, who was buried at the North East Center Burying Ground in 1899. According to the article, research found that the grave is outside of the boundaries of the cemetery property, signifying a racial injustice that needs to be corrected in 2020.Since my name was mentioned in the article and because I have gathered a great amount of information regarding Thomas Stansbury and North East Burying Ground, I wanted to share the following information I have found while working with the North East Historical Society.

In regard to the location of the grave, we can look first to a description of the cemetery at the time Stansbury passed away. Between the years of 1898 and 1903, local historian Lawrence Van Alstyne copied all of the gravestone inscriptions from cemeteries in the area and recorded them in the book, “Burying Grounds of Sharon, Conn., Amenia and North East, New York.” He included Stansbury’s entire inscription among the 80 he recorded from the North East Center Burying Ground and did not in any way indicate that Stansbury’s stone was outside the fold, so to speak. 

Van Alstyne wrote a description of the burying ground as he found it. He noted that there were two private family plots: the Goodrich plot with 22 headstones, located in the front section along the highway, and the Lee family plot of six stones, just behind or to the east of the Goodrich plot. The two plots are separated by a stone wall. 

The Methodist Church stood on the north side of these plots. The earliest burials were at the Goodrich plots in 1812. Stansbury’s stone was one of the last to be added.

The remainder of the burying ground was available as a community cemetery. That portion is not visible from the highway, because it slopes downhill to the east. Van Alstyne wrote, “It is overgrown with bushes and greatly neglected, many of the stones being down, and the whole place full of briars.” 

Stansbury’s gravestone, which states it was “erected by Friends,” is located on the northern edge of the cemetery; it is of better quality than any of the stones there — except for one in the Goodrich section. In fact, Stansbury’s stone is similar to the Rev. Goodrich Horton family monument; both are made of thick granite, with lovely polished surfaces on which the inscriptions were carved. These two monuments were constructed in the 1890s and both are visible from the driveway of the Horton home, the former parsonage north of the cemetery. The Goodrich sisters may have been among Stansbury’s “Friends.”

Quite possibly, if the main part of the community cemetery was neglected and overgrown with briars, placing Stansbury’s grave on the northern edge of the cemetery might have been the only accessible location for adding another grave. The many broken and flattened stones would have made it difficult to know where there might have been an open plot for a new burial. 

Today, the ancient burying ground is owned by John and Cindy Heck of North East Muffler, Inc.

Stansbury was born around 1824 in Maryland, according to five North East Censuses dating from 1850 through 1880. He was likely born a slave, as the inscription on his gravestone states, but it is quite possible that he was a free Black man by the time he arrived in North East at age 25. According to Maryland history, almost half of the Black population of Maryland was free by 1860.

Stansbury and his family lived on Mill Road for 50 years. He was a farm laborer and worked at the mill as well. The farmer across the road, Mr. Thomas Hill, was also a person of color. In later years, the Cooleys, another Black family, lived there. Three of the Cooleys were buried at North East Center Burying Ground. 

A 1999 document found in North East Historical Society archives regarding the stone house on the mill property mentions Tom’s Road, the path leading to the mill (now crossed by the Rail Trail). This road was likely named for Thomas Stansbury, because his wood frame house was built right there. The mill owners during that time were Benjamin Benedict, A. E. Reed and Martin Paine.

According to the North East town clerk’s records, Thomas Stansbury received financial assistance during the year and a half before he died. The Overseers of the Poor were F.D. Traver and W.T. Eggleston, while the Committee in Connection with the Poor included Charles A. Cline, citizen, W.B. Miller, MD, L.P. Hatch, clerk, and Frank A. Hotchkiss, town supervisor. These men appeared to have concern and consideration for Stansbury in his declining years.

According to the Valentine Funeral Home records, Stansbury died June 30, 1899. His funeral was paid for by the town of North East.

In conclusion, I believe Stansbury was well-regarded in the town of North East for half a century. He does not appear to have been discriminated against in regard to the location of his burial place. On the contrary, his many Friends not only provided financial assistance in his last years and paid for his funeral, but they also buried him with honor by erecting a beautiful monument for him. Furthermore, he even had a road named for him near the mill.

Elizabeth “Betsy” C. Strauss is a member of the North East Historical Society.

Editor’s note: The two articles mentioned strove to give credit to community volunteers who worked to either debunk or validate a long circulating rumor of bodies — particularly Thomas Stansbury’s — buried outside the confines of the cemetery. A professional survey indicated that was, indeed, the case for him as well as for several others. To rectify the situation, the ground in question is being purchased through donated funds and the two pieces of land will now be united. 

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