The African American Ancestral Burying Ground at Vale Cemetery
What do prominent engineers, businesspeople, college professors, Civil War soldiers, abolitionists, authors, and poets have in common? Many of them are buried in the historic Vale Cemetery in Schenectady.
Should you ever find yourself passing through the Capital Region’s “Electric City” on a good weather day, we’d highly recommend you stop over at 907 State Street and go for a quick walk, or take a tour. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn about history and historic landscapes in one location.
Vale Cemetery opened in 1857 and is listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places. The cemetery and accompanying Vale Park are classic examples of cultural landscapes from the rural cemetery era. The complex itself occupies about 100 acres of land near the city center and is irregularly constructed. This illustrates the cemetery’s growth and changes made over time as monuments and sections were added to or changed. There are a variety of interesting plots in the cemetery, but one to take note of is the newly named African American Ancestral Burying Ground. This location was formerly called the “Colored Plot.”
In 1859, the Vale Cemetery Association board of trustees briefly discussed establishing a special section of the cemetery for people of color in response to a plea from Schenectady residents. At the time, African American citizens were laid to rest in a field on Veeder Avenue in Schenectady that was known as the “Colored Cemetery.” Several years later in 1863, Alonzo Paige, a Schenectady lawyer, purchased several sites within the existing Vale Cemetery to create a section for African Americans. He also arranged for those buried on Veeder Avenue to be exhumed and reburied. This is how Vale Cemetery came to have its own “Colored Plot.”
In the field of preservation, we often talk about how historic buildings change and deteriorate over time. But we also pay attention to historic landscapes. Arguably, landscapes change more rapidly over time than buildings because of plantings, nearby developments, and constant exposure to the elements. Cultural Landscape Reports examine the history and development of a landscape, and Vale Cemetery completed such a study in three phases (2013, 2015, 2016) with support from the Preserve New York Grant Program, a partnership between the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) and the Preservation League of New York State. Robert Toole, a landscape architect based in Saratoga, studied the history and development of the cemetery grounds and made recommendations for treatment and maintenance of the property. The administrators at Vale Cemetery Association now use these documents to inform cemetery preservation.
The African American Ancestral Burying Ground is one area of the cemetery that had become deteriorated over time. Harsh Schenectady winters caused the ground to heave and recede and many of the monuments cracked and tumbled over. Help was urgently needed. Neil Yetwin, a Psychology and History teacher in Schenectady had been bringing his students to Vale Cemetery for years to teach them about slavery, the Civil War, and the Underground Railroad. While studying the history of Vale Cemetery and its Colored Section, he discovered information about the life of Moses Viney, a runaway enslaved person. Viney made his way north from a plantation near Easton, Maryland to Schenectady with the help of the Underground Railroad and ultimately became friends with Eliphalet Nott, former president of Union College. Viney became Nott’s personal messenger, confidante, and close friend. When Viney’s owners from Maryland traveled north searching for him, President Nott sent Moses Viney to Ontario for refuge. Nott later sent his nephew to Canada to buy Viney’s freedom. Moses Viney was buried in Vale Cemetery, and Mr. Yetwin published a series of articles recounting his story in the Schenectady County Historical Newsletter.
Later, Erica Fugger, a Union College intern at Vale Cemetery, completed further research on the life of Moses Viney and was able to further flesh out Viney’s odyssey. Ms. Fugger also listed Vale Cemetery on the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and organized a tour for educators at the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region. This new research led Walter Simpkins, a local activist and social worker, to put the African American Ancestral Burying Ground in the spotlight. He formally renamed the plot, organized a Juneteenth Celebration and organized several Youth Workdays for restoring the area. A once overgrown and dilapidated section of the cemetery now has a much fresher look, as well as some interpretive panels. High school students also designed and published a brochure about the burial ground. It is an example of preservation from the ground up, quite literally.
Historic Preservation isn’t just about buildings, and preservation success stories don’t happen overnight. They also don’t happen in silos. The Vale Cemetery Association’s efforts to revive and restore the African American Ancestral Burying Ground were successful because of countless volunteer hours, lots of research, community input, and grassroots support. It’s a great place to visit – for history, and for a lesson in how preservation works at the community level.