‘It’s up to each generation’: Efforts underway to restore gravestones of city’s 19th century African Americans and abolitionists 

  • The gravestones of George Hodestia, left, and Laura Knowles Washington, shown Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, are among those slated for restoration at Park Street Cemetery in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The gravestones of Basil Dorsey, from left, Louisa Dorsey and Nancy Jones, shown Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, are among those slated for restoration at Park Street Cemetery in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The gravestones of Louisa Dorsey, left, and Nancy Jones, shown Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, are among those slated for repairs at Park Street Cemetery in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The gravestone of Nancy Jones, shown Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, is among those slated for restoration at Park Street Cemetery in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The gravestones of Charles C. Burleigh and Gertrude K. Burleigh, shown Tuesday, are among those slated for restoration at Park Street Cemetery in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The gravestones of Charles C. Burleigh and Gertrude K. Burleigh, shown Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, are among those slated for restoration at Park Street Cemetery in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Steve Strimer, a local historian with the David Ruggles Center, stands at the gravesite of Laura Knowles Washington and George Hodestia, who was formerly ensalved. They are both buried at the Park Street Cemetery in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Strimer, a local historian with the David Ruggles Center, stands at the gravesite of Basil Dorsey, who was enslaved in Maryland and escaped in 1836. His grave is in the Park Street Cemetery in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Strimer, a local historian with the David Ruggles Center, stands in the Park Street Cemetery in Florence. The gravesite of Basil Dorsey, who was enslaved in Maryland and escaped in 1836, is behind him.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Strimer, a local historian with the David Ruggles Center, stands at the gravesite of Laura Knowles Washington and George Hodestia, who was formerly ensalved. They are both buried at the Park Street Cemetery in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/19/2020 6:37:25 PM
Modified: 8/19/2020 6:37:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In Florence’s Park Street Cemetery, some gravestones are well over 100 years old, and their age shows. Basil Dorsey’s marble headstone is broken in half, with the front half on the ground and leaning up against the base. Tufts of grass cover the engraved year of his death: 1872.

Dorsey was born into slavery in Frederick County, Maryland, and escaped to the North, eventually settling in Florence. Without Dorsey, “any sketch of Florence would be incomplete,” an article published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in 1867 read. A home he lived in on Nonotuck Street is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

His is one of a number of gravestones of 19th-century African American residents and abolitionists that will likely soon be restored.

The David Ruggles Center for History and Education is giving the city $3,000 to restore the gravestones of Dorsey, Laura Washington, Louisa Dorsey, Nancy Jones, Charles Burleigh and Gertrude Burleigh. George Hodestia, a formerly enslaved man, will also have his gravestone restored, work that Ta Mara Conde of Historic Gravestone Services in New Salem is donating. An anonymous donor is giving the Ruggles Center $3,000 if it can also fundraise for the project, said Steve Strimer, a local historian at the Ruggles Center who is helping lead the project.

Of these seven people, most were African American residents from the 19th century. Around the country, memorials have gotten a lot of attention, lately, Strimer said.

“Statues to Confederate leaders are being dismantled,” he said, “so the flip side of that is finding underappreciated historical markers, statues, whatever, that deserve preservation … because these people fought for equal rights.”

Laura Washington, for example, donated money in her will for a free bed at Cooley Dickinson Hospital for African American patients, and Charles Burleigh was a prominent white abolitionist, according to Strimer. Burleigh promised to not cut his beard until slavery was abolished.

Ta Mara Conde repairs gravestones for a living. She runs Historic Gravestone Services and Strimer said she will be doing the restoration. Conde has visited the cemetery and seen toppled-over stones.

“They need lots of TLC,” she said.

Hodestia’s marble stone, for example, is cracked in half and lying on the ground. Grass grows around the stone, covering it in some places, and the words have faded and are difficult to make out. Hodestia, formerly a slave in Maryland, was actually a caretaker at Park Street Cemetery. Because his stone says he was formerly enslaved, Conde will be doing it for free, which is her policy.

“The Good Book tells you to serve those who have served. I’ve repaired a couple of former slave stones before,” she said. “I’ve also done complete African American cemeteries in Maryland. I’m moved by the need to maintain these historical artifacts. I try to work with each group and try to find a way to finance it and make it happen.”

“One could say trying to restore gravestones is a fool’s errand — they are going to continue to deteriorate,” Strimer said. “All of this preservation work, everything eventually perishes.”

But Strimer believes preservation is important, “It’s up to each generation to try and do their best by what remains from the previous generations.”

The stones have practical value, too, Conde said. “I think it’s important because there’s information on that stone that may or may not be written down somewhere. And if it is, it could be destroyed by fire or some other means. I think they are very important artifacts that tell a lot about the people in the town — things you don’t know and people you don’t hear about,” she said, adding of Hodestia, that someone like him “should have eternal peace.”

The city has been working on restoring grave markers as part of preservation efforts at its four historic cemeteries, but these gravestones were not yet repaired, and Strimer didn’t want to wait. Several years ago, the city made plans to preserve the cemeteries, and they included evaluating the condition of gravestones and prioritizing which ones to fix first. Assessments weren’t done on a historical basis, though, said Sarah LaValley, conservation and preservation planner in the Northampton Office of Planning and Sustainability.

“They just looked at what was the condition of the stone and how badly does it need to be repaired,” she said.

At Park Street Cemetery, only the first round of prioritized gravestones has been repaired, and city money was used for the project, according to LaValley. Restoration work also was done on gravestones last year at Bridge Street Cemetery. The donations from the Ruggles Center and Conde are on Thursday night’s City Council agenda.

Strimer hopes the project can be done by this fall.

Also on Thursday’s council agenda is a $100,000 gift from an anonymous donor to replace the chain-link fence around Bridge Street Cemetery. In preservation plans for the city’s historic graveyards, “one of the aspirations of that plan was to ultimately replace that fence with something that was more appropriate historically,” said Mayor David Narkewicz. “Not necessarily the original historical materials, but something that looked more appropriate.”

The city budgeted some funding for the project this year, but not enough for the full cost of the fence, Narkewicz said.

At one point, the cemetery had an iron fence, and an assessment of the graveyard done in 2016 recommends fencing and gates made of ornamental iron, vinyl-coated chain link, and perhaps cast iron.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy