You can tell a lot about a town by its cemeteries. You can tell a lot about its history by who lies buried within its bounds. You can also tell a lot about the character of a people by how they remember and tend their dead. Cemeteries hold our memories, quiet and unmoving weft to balance the warp of our ever forward driving momentum. Cemeteries root us in our own evolution, reminding us of who we once were, and the choice ever facing us as a community of whom we wish to become in the future. They're good touch-stones for the health of a community. They can also hold some intriguing surprises.
Take Beacon, for instance. Beacon is a city of secrets. Just walking through her streets, chatting with her artists, shopping in the various stores and galleries, visiting DIA, one would never guess how deeply entwined Beacon has been in the march of our nation toward independence and freedom. She has been though and the clues are there, most especially in her cemeteries. One cemetery that doesn't get anywhere nearly the attention it deserves is the Afro-American Union Cemetery on Oak Street and Verplanck.
To talk about this cemetery, it's necessary to first introduce one of Beacon's most interesting historical personages: James F. Brown. Brown is a fascinating man. Born a slave in Maryland in 1793, he took freedom into his own hands, fleeing North in 1827 when his then owner, Susan Williams, refused him the right to buy his own freedom (something that had been promised him by her father). Brown eventually ended up in New York working for the Verplanck family. His employers helped him maintain and legally buy his freedom when his former owner tracked him down. He remained with the family as the head gardener at Mount Gulian estate in Beacon, eventually buying his wife's freedom, purchasing a home, and even voting for the first time in 1837. His story is in itself a fascinating one and Brown was the subject of a recent book "Freedom's Gardener" by historian Myra B. Young Armstead. Best of all he kept a regular diary, in which he recorded daily happenings in his life. This diary has proven a goldmine for historians. A man of character, as the minutiae of his story show, he knew the value of tending to his community's dead.
In 1851 (in conjunction with Samuel Sampson, Edward Bush, Christian Reynolds, and Samuel Gomer) he bought what is now the Afro-American Union Cemetery. At the time, it was nothing more than a small portion of land located in and purchased from the local Methodist Cemetery, originally founded in 1819. Now, in 2014, there are no extant gravestones in the Afro-American Union Cemetery, but this is a fairly new development. We know that at one point after it was established as a separate cemetery, there were headstones including at least one for Civil War veteran Spenser DeFreese.
That name may not be well known in Beacon today, but at one point in Beacon's history, DeFreese was a hero. There were many black soldiers in the Union army - roughly 10% of Union forces from 1862 onward. They faced discrimination, prejudice, and a much greater chance of cruelty and abuse if captured by the Confederate army, yet they stepped up, stepped forward and enlisted in such great numbers that in 1863 Lincoln's government established the "Bureau of Colored Troops" to manage the growing numbers of black recruits (even within the Union, having black men armed and trained for combat was, at that time, a very controversial thing). Former slave, firebrand, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass urged men to enlist as a guarantee of full citizenship when the war was over and in fact contributed two sons to the Union's war effort. While the aforementioned James Brown did not enlist, many a young black man in Beacon did. At least one was buried with full honors in Fairview Cemetery, also in Beacon and we know that there are several more in the now unmarked graves at the Afro-American Union Cemetery. See what secrets our cemeteries hold?
Cemeteries are more than just historical landmarks. They are treasure troves of knowledge. They hold the secrets of who and what a community is: all the ground over which its generations have walked. Beacon Cemetery Committee, a sub-division of the Beacon Historical Society is dedicated to preserving not just the Afro-American Union Cemetery, but all the cemeteries in Beacon. Current projects include eventually replacing the military headstone for Spenser DeFreese, a slow and laborious process filled with a great deal of governmental paperwork. No one knows when the original headstones disappeared from the cemetery, but raising a stone for one of Beacon's military heroes is a good place to begin its restoration.
You can be part of that restoration too. The Cemetery Committee meets the last Thursday of each month at the Howland Public Library. Come and help preserve Beacon's historic landscape.
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