A crowd gathered on Saturday, November 9 at Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) to rebury a human skull that had been uncovered there more than a century ago. The skull, determined to be an African male, was interred in a private ceremony at the Huguenot Burial Ground in New Paltz, roughly 90 minutes north of New York City; it was buried alongside the remains of the street’s original white setters and their descendents – the first African remains ever to be interred here, and the first interment in this cemetery since 1864.
In 1900, local banker and racetrack owner Abraham Deyo Broadhead dug up the skull on his property and donated it to Historic Huguenot Street (HHS). Long assumed to be that of a Native-American, the skull was displayed for a time at the Memorial House as an Indian relic, then stored away for decades in the HHS collections department. When physical anthropologist Kenneth Nystrom, associate professor at SUNY New Paltz, examined the skull in 2011, he determined it wasn’t Indian but instead had belonged to an African male who died between the age of 25 and 50.
After the discovery of the skull’s true origins, members of the HHS board, the HHS advisory council, and representatives of the African-American academic community decided to make restitution the best way possible: to open the earth and integrate the Huguenot Burial Ground, finally welcoming this man to rest among the other 17th century residents of Historic Huguenot Street.
Susan Stessin-Cohn, Director of Education for HHS, said, “In the eighteenth century, there were enslaved people living in every single house on this street. And though it wasn’t really discussed here until recently, slavery and black history are now an important part of our interpretive and education programs.” Stessin-Cohn continued, “The stone houses here were built, families were raised, and farms were tended on the backs of enslaved Africans. Their story needs to be heard, yet enslaved people in the north left so little behind to tell us about their lives and their culture; what we know comes largely from slave sale and runaway notices. We know there were bounty hunters on Huguenot Street, we know how enslaved families were broken up, and we see evidence in their bones of how hard they worked.”
The Rev. G. Modele Clarke, senior pastor of the New Progressive Baptist Church in Kingston, officiated at the re-interment ceremony. Rev. Clarke’s wife, Evelyn, sang a selection of traditional spirituals, and because many local runaway slave notices indicated, ‘plays the fiddle’ or ‘ran away with his fiddle,’ musician Evan Stover played early 18th and 19th century fiddle tunes that might once have been heard on Huguenot Street.
A.J. Williams-Myers, well-known author, historian, and Professor of Black Studies at SUNY New Paltz specified, “The skull will be buried upright and facing east, as it longs for its flight on the wings of eagles carrying him home to Africa; there to be back in the highlands above the mighty Niger River among family members in the shade of the baobab tree, while little ones nearby play together in among the fields of corn.”
The burial place is marked by a thick fieldstone slab featuring a carving of a Sankofa — a bird symbol from Ghana in west Africa. “The Sankofa represents the importance of learning from the past,” says HHS Director of Visitor Services Rebecca Mackey, “and the inscription beneath it is a translation from an African proverb; it reads, ‘It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.’”