Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Update On The Reburial of the Schuyler Flatts Slaves

This afternoon, an informational meeting was held at the Albany Public Library to discuss the reburial of skeletons discovered near the Schuyler Flatts. The remains are of fourteen people who were undoubtedly slaves owned by the Schuyler family from the early 18th to early 19th centuries. The speaker was Paul Stewart of the Underground Railroad History Project; representatives from the New York State Museum, St. Agnes' Roman Catholic Cemetery, and Albany Rural Cemetery were present, along with the Town of Colonie's historian.

Some background information on the discovery of the skeletons and proposals for reburial were discussed.

In the past, the need for a suitable burial container had been mentioned as a concern; some sort of casket that would preserve the remains in the event of a future exhumation (presumably for scientific or educational purposes). However, this is no longer considered an issue and, in my opinion, there should not be any future exhumation of these skeletons. Their next resting place should be their final resting place and they should be allowed to lie in peace there. I would assume that reasonable samples from the bones could and would be retained by the NYS Museum for additional research as technology in that field advances.

A suitable burial container is still an issue, though. The discussion included modern-style burial vaults, simple wooden boxes in a manner similar to the original white pine coffins, cardboard boxes which have been used in previous reburials of historic remains, or merely wrapping the bodies in muslin winding sheets and laying them to rest in the earth. The issue of burying the remains separately or in a mass grave was also mentioned. All of these options are, of course, dependent on cost and available funds.

On the subject of funding, while the expenses have not yet been determined, I would suggest that donations could be solicited from individuals, businesses, and organizations with an interest in assisting with the cost of reburial and the placement of a suitable memorial or marker.

Several locations for reburial were mentioned. One early proposal put forward not long after the bones were discovered was to rebury them at the same privately owned site where they were discovered, along with an appropriate marker. There are at least two more undisturbed burials there and it is believed there may be others. However, there would be little protection for the remains if, in the future, construction or development affects the property. The parcel would have to be rezoned as a cemetery to be protected under the New York State Cemetery Laws and this, no doubt, would involve quite a bit of legal paperwork. Also, St. Agnes' Roman Catholic Cemetery – which is located just south of the original grave site and adjacent to the Albany Rural Cemetery – has offered to donate a suitable plot in a section called Founder's Hill, not far from the remains which were transferred to St. Agnes' from the Catholic lot in the State Street Burying Grounds during the mass removal of graves in 1868.

Another proposed site was the Church Grounds of Albany Rural Cemetery. It is my opinion, based on the history of the Church Grounds and the information presented at this meeting, that this is the most appropriate place for the reburial of the Schuyler Flatts skeletons.

First, there is strong precedent for such a reburial. In the past, when historic graves have been uncovered by construction or development, they have often been re-interred at the Church Grounds or other suitable areas of the Rural Cemetery. These reburials include the graves exhumed from the Alms House site along New Scotland Avenue, children from the Albany Orphanage, and Pearl (the name give to a woman whose grave was discovered along South Pearl Street, formerly the site of an early Lutheran burial ground). Also, the Rural Cemetery is closest to the place that these people knew as home, though not by choice, and where they were laid to rest without the expectation of future generations disturbing their graves.

Second, as the religious beliefs of these Schuyler slaves are unknown to modern scholars and historians, it would be appropriate to bury them in a secular cemetery – such as the Rural Cemetery – which has allowed for the burial of people of any race or religion. Also, the Church Grounds includes the African Methodist Episcopal burials moved from the State Street Burying Grounds. While this church did not exist during the lives of the Schuyler Flatts slaves, it is not impossible (thought completely unprovable) some of the individuals could possibly be direct descendents or other kin.

Today's meeting was, of course, very preliminary. There will be future meetings to further address the subject and to form a committee to handle the arrangements. A town hall meeting will also be held to get further input from the public. It is hoped that a reburial – with a fitting ceremony – can be held sometime in the warmer months.

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