Juneteenth Ceremony Honors African Americans Buried Nearby

Despite the sweltering heat, community members, elected officials, and volunteers gathered at the Rye African American Cemetery on June 22.

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Published June 28, 2024 9:24 AM
2 min read


-By Elliot Walker

Despite the sweltering heat, community members, elected officials, and volunteers gathered at the Rye African American Cemetery on June 22 to commemorate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery, and to honor the lives and resilience of those laid to rest there.

The commemoration, organized by the Friends of the African American Cemetery and the Town of Rye, began with a tour by local high schoolers telling the stories of some of those who now rest in the burial ground. Spencer Elliot of Rye Neck High School highlighted Amos Williams, a Civil War veteran and corporal of the 31st United States Colored Infantry, who participated in the decisive Union victory at Petersburg and was present for the surrender of Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865. 

Elliot, along with Yana Vorobiev of Blind Brook High School, and Rye High School rising senior Charlotte Lorraine were instrumental in organizing the event. Lorraine said that she hopes to “give voices to the voiceless and tell their stories,” a goal she continues by researching and trying to identify and document some of those in unmarked graves within the cemetery, which sits near the Greenwood Union Cemetery on North Street. 

Lorraine read a letter by Edwin Purdy to his sister, Elmira Bell. Purdy, a Navy sailor, was in Washington immediately after Lincoln’s assassination and expressed uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. Lorraine said that in this time of trouble and upheaval, Juneteenth, which occurred shortly after Lincoln’s death, “became a significant moment of hope and celebration during this period of uncertainty, representing the promise of a new beginning.” 

The keynote address was delivered by Joseph Holland, a lawyer, writer, ordained minister, and former New York State Housing Commissioner. Holland drew from his book, “Make Your Own History: Timeless Truths from Black American Trailblazers,” to tell the stories and outline the achievements of African-Americans like Civil War veteran James Goodwin, who advocated for equal pay for black soldiers, and Robert Smalls, who commandeered a confederate warship and delivered slaves to freedom. 

Established in 1860, but likely used as a burial ground long before that, the Rye African American cemetery is on the edge of the Westchester African-American Heritage Trail, as well as on the National Register of Historic Places. Buried there are numerous African-American men and women, including veterans, churchmen, and a man who found his way to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Gary Zuckerman, Rye Town supervisor, spoke of the significance of Juneteenth not only as a commemoration of the end of slavery but as a day that raises awareness of issues that still affect the African-American community. “Juneteenth marked not the end, but the beginning, of a struggle for justice,” he said, adding “a struggle in which African-Americans are not alone.” He urged attendees to stand against intolerance and hatred. 

Following the ceremony, those in attendance began a day of service, helping to restore and clean the cemetery’s headstones. Just as the speakers told the stories and struggles of those buried within the cemetery, the cleaning of the headstones ensured that the names and history of those buried there are not forgotten.

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