Plaque to memorialize historic, unmarked black cemetery

GREENWICH — An unmarked, centuries-old African-American burial ground in this wealthy Connecticut town will finally be memorialized.  A plaque and some landscaping will identify the cemetery, under a settlement of a nearly yearlong legal fight between local officials and the owners of a multimillion home overlooking Long Island Sound.

The deal involving what is labeled on some old maps the “colored cemetery” in Greenwich was approved unanimously Thursday by the town’s Board of Selectmen. The homeowners sued last year after the town moved to acquire the cemetery and adjacent land that included a rear driveway to their house.

The small plot is believed to contain the remains of black and Native American people, including some slaves who were owned by the town’s first settlers in the 17th century. It’s one of many black cemeteries across the country that went unmarked for decades before finally being recognized in recent years.

Six descendants of Greenwich’s first settlers and those believed to be buried in the black cemetery also agreed with the settlement, including Teresa Vega, who said her ancestors include the mixed-race children of white settlers and their black and Native American slaves.

“It pays tribute to the native and African origins of Greenwich,” said Vega, of New York City. “My goal has always been to pay tribute to my ancestors who are no doubt buried there and to bring them back to life. People have a right to be remembered.”What the plaque will say and when it will be erected have yet to be decided.

The parcel, about 2,200 square feet (205 square meters), is vacant and right next to the home of Jeffrey and Andrea Stewart. It looks like a manicured sideyard to their house.

Two adjacent graveyards — the Byram Cemetery and Lyon Cemetery — are just over a tall rock face behind the Stewarts’ home and the black cemetery. Those cemeteries also date back centuries and include marked gravestones of settlers who came to Greenwich in the mid-1600s.

Researchers commissioned by the town to study the cemeteries said the historical record is clear that the Lyon and Banks families of Greenwich owned black and Native American slaves. They said it was not uncommon in the Northeast for white settlers to set aside burial space — often unmarked or adorned with impermanent wooden markers — for their slaves near, but separate from, their own plots.

The Board of Selectmen approved acquiring all three cemetery sites under the state’s ancient cemetery law in May 2016. Ownership of the parcels was unclear and disputed. That prompted a lawsuit by the Stewarts that involved their rear driveway, which was part of the land being acquired by the town and in between the black burial ground and the two cemeteries over the rocky ridge.

The Stewarts’ lawsuit argued there was no definitive proof that people were buried in the black cemetery and they were entitled to keep their driveway. They also asked a judge to declare who owned the black cemetery. The Stewarts added terracing atop the black burial ground in a landscaping project — which Vega said amounted to desecrating her ancestors’ graves.

The settlement allows the Stewarts to keep the rear driveway and the town to obtain ownership of the three cemeteries.

Ed Marcus, the Stewarts’ lawyer, said the couple’s main focus was protecting their right to use their own property, including the driveway. He said it’s still not clear if anyone is buried at the site, but the Stewarts are OK with the plaque, which will be paid for by the town.

“It’s an acknowledgement that people feel that it is of historical significance and the plaque will mark that,” said Marcus, a former state senator and former chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee.

A 1901 map was the earliest found that marked the “colored cemetery,” according to the town-commissioned study. It’s also shown on a 1938 atlas of Greenwich.

Peter Tesei, the town’s first selectman, said the settlement preserves an important and invaluable piece of Greenwich history.