The cemetery

A NYC-based job training program uses cemeteries to forge future masons
By John Donegan

This story originally appeared in the 7/17/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.

Some call it the swamp. Spanning a small patch of knoll far removed from the rest of Rye’s Greenwood Union Cemetery are handfuls of scattered graves. The area is seldom visited, segregated from the rest of the gravesite’s population; many of its headstones are derelict. The deed to the land is nearly illegible. Until the 1990s, the entrance to the grounds, once privately owned, was thought to be legally inaccessible without trespassing.

On Monday, June 14, four apprentice stone masons under the supervision of a certified instructor and World Monuments Fund U.S. Director Frank Sanchis, started a week-long project to restore the defunct gravesite known as the African American Cemetery. As of Wednesday, they had repaired over 50 graves.

Sanchis represents the World Monuments Fund (WMF), which in 2015 formed the Bridge To Crafts Careers (BTCC)—a job training initiative specific to teaching underserved New Yorkers the art of restoring stone. The program was initially taught at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx before expanding to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

He first visited the Rye site in January with Port Chester resident Dave Thomas and Rye Town Administrator Debbie Reisner. The three trudged through the snowy grounds to assess what needed to be repaired. Representatives from WMF heard about the African American cemetery in Rye from Thomas and Jay Heritage Foundation President Suzanne Clary. Together, they allocated $10,000 for this week-long project.

“Twenty years ago, you’d be standing in four feet high bamboo across the whole site,” Thomas said. “At one point no one knew whose site this was.”

When Rye City split from the Town in 1948, there were two plots of land in contention: Rye Town Park and this cemetery. But unlike the Park, the issue with the gravesite was no one wanted to claim the land. Eventually, once the deed was found in the 1990s, it attributed the land to the Town of Rye. The Town took responsibility for maintaining the grounds after a decades-long period of its being abandoned.

Thomas points to one particularly tall gravestone, an obelisk shaped spear that towers above the rest. According to him, the grave belongs to William Voris, who was once one of the richest men in the Town in the 1860s and 70s. He owned a saloon, boarding house and an ice cream stand at Rye Town Beach. Before the Town took over the land, Voris’ grave and others were either hidden by overgrown turf or defiled by delinquents.

“All those years before people would come out, vandals would come out, it was a drinking spot where they used to hang out and do whatever they wanted to do,” Thomas said. “But then families would come out—descendants of people who used to live here.”

Thomas founded The Friends of The African American Cemetery, a local nonprofit, to organize cleanups, educate anyone willing to listen and amplify the discoveries he uncovers about the sacred ground.

Finding a future among the dead

Today, the cemetery is rarely the place one might associate with growth or the living. Aside from tales of the occult or religious, it is a place of the past—where people go to preserve memories. Sanchis believes these places can be for the preservation of something else: masonry. Under the wings of Sanchis and the Manhattan-based restoration program, a crew of New Yorkers carve out a career and a life from the graveyard.

“Now the World Monument Fund comes and says we think this place is worth saving,” Thomas said. “So that means that this is going to be a site for the world to look at; internationally known as a place of history. That’s amazing to me.”

Sanchis insisted that cemeteries are perfect training grounds for budding craftspeople. The graves generally range from basic to boastful and offer a variety of styles in miniature architecture—from towering mausoleums to miniscule markers—which makes for the perfect canvas by which apprentices can learn, make mistakes and gain experience in what WMF feels is an underserved job market.

“There’s been a great growing interest among the general public in preservation in the United States,” Sanchis said. “Thousands of buildings have been protected, probably thousands of historic districts have been created. We have people buying old houses and fixing them up, all in the past 50 years. There has not been a parallel rise in training craftspeople to work on these historic sites.

The program targets young people; underrepresented New Yorkers with few options aside from low-paying service jobs. While most recruitment has come from Bronx communities, any New York State resident ages 18 to 24 with a high school diploma can apply.

According to Sanchis, vocational positions like masonry are in high demand. Sanchis said 80% of their graduates are employed and 100% of them have been offered a position. Each mason that completes the apprenticeship earns a spot in the International Masonry Institute, a union based out of Bowie, Md.

That said, this job is not for everyone. The work is spent under a blazing sun, involving tedious and demanding work at $15 an hour, six hours a day, five days a week, for 10 weeks.

Sanchis joined WMF in 2010 and has been the program director for BTCC since its inception. He is set to retire at the end of this month. The Westchester-born director began his career with an architectural study of the county in 1975 and finds it fitting he finishes his employment here in Rye.

“Well, when you’re a preservationist, you never have a last project,” Sanchis smirked. “There’s always something else. I just recently accepted to be the chairman of the Preservation League of New York State and I’m looking forward to devoting a lot more time to those responsibilities.”

Unlike the Woodlawn Cemetery—with extravagant mausoleums several stories high outfitted with stained glass, sofas and curtains—the African American Cemetery is a secluded afterthought rooted in racism.

For many African American burial sites, there is no official record or database recording where these sites are located. In December 2020, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation to recognize African American gravesites and provide them federal assistance to ensure they are preserved.

“African American burial grounds and cemeteries have gained a lot of interest lately,” Sanchis said. “Most are underfunded, they don’t have permanent staff and they could use assistance.”

Thomas did all the documentation prior to the apprentices’ arrival.

“African Americans at the time were only relegated to be buried here, compared to Greenwood Union,” Thomas said. “So this was at its heyday in the 1870s to 1930s, through the 40s and 50s. People came out, descendants and their children, and they tended the graves themselves. Only until the sixties did it fall apart.”

A similar yet larger burial ground found in lower Manhattan, outside the wall by which Wall Street got its name, which became enshrined as the African Burial Ground National Monument. The site contains the remains of 419 enslaved Black people—the oldest and largest known excavated burial ground of enslaved Africans in North America. The sacred site hosts exhibit areas, guided tours and events. Whereas that site dates to the 17th century, Thomas explained the Rye cemetery is a bit younger, originating in the mid-19th century. And while no one has been buried in this plot of land for at least 56 years, the Town has not specified whether the cemetery will receive any historical recognition by the state or federal government in the foreseeable future.

“It was segregation,” Thomas said. “They basically said you can’t bury these two types of people together. And that’s basically what you have here. The difference here is that we have few records of anyone being a slave—most of these people are free African Americans who lived in the Town of Rye. So it brings a new perspective to me and to everybody when I say this is not just about slavery. This is about the history of our country, encapsulated in the space of a football field.”

That said, after the restoration project in Rye is completed, most of the work will yet to be started. Most of those buried there, an estimated 200 to 300, were buried without a marker and without proper plotting. The map to the cemetery died with its undertaker, whose name is also unknown. The Rye Town Council discussed at their May 18 meeting possibly pinpointing the burial locations of the unmarked bodies in the cemetery with ground radar. The last estimate they received was quoted at $500 per hundred square feet.

WMF on Wednesday sent up a drone to measure the square footage, to help the Town better narrow down an appropriate estimate and look for any abnormalities in the ground, which could suggest graves.

“There’s no plot map,” Thomas said. “The undertaker who did most of the burials went out of business long ago and claimed there were records, but you cannot find it. So, there’s a lot to be discovered here.”

Thomas also hopes to make the cemetery a legally recognized historical site. The last burial at the ground was Dorothy Horrington in 1964, and Thomas said there will not be any more there anytime soon.

“There are 14 African American veterans buried here from the Civil War,” Thomas said. “Two of them are sailors—one of whom was in Washington when Lincoln was assassinated, he writes about it to his sister. We have World War I veterans (here). We have people here that we just don’t know what their story is. And it is a shame we don’t have the schoolkids come out and learn about local history. Because that’s what this is—local history.”

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