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Sag Harbor panel discusses East End slaves’ history

From left, Vivian Wallace, Muriel Cunningham and Franklin

From left, Vivian Wallace, Muriel Cunningham and Franklin Wilks, all from Sag Harbor, chat before a panel discussion at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

The lives of hundreds of slaves on the East End were recognized Sunday in Sag Harbor.

A panel of academics and advocates discussed what they described as the untold past of African-Americans who lived and worked on the East End centuries ago, many of whom rest in unmarked graves in places such as Sag Harbor and East Hampton.

Before the event, which was sponsored by the Eastville Community Historical Society and Shelter Island-based Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, visitors browsed an exhibition of photos of local burial sites.

Hundreds of slaves are thought to be buried at Sylvester Manor, where the cemetery dates back to the 17th century, the exhibit’s curator, Donnamarie Barnes, said.

“These people are a part of the history of the East End,” Barnes said. “They’re the unknown history, certainly the untaught history.”

The event, titled “How Is The Story Told?” was organized as a part of Black History month. This year, the focus for the month is on historic African-American sites.

Little is known about most of the African-American slaves who lived on the East End, panel moderator Karl Grossman said.

Slaves were used in New York from roughly the 17th to 19th centuries. Slavery was abolished in New York State on July 4, 1827.

“The story really is heartbreaking. These are stories not told until very recently,” Grossman said. “Cemeteries can provide some insight into history. . . . Burial grounds tell tales.”

The panel included Georgette Grier-Key, executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society, and Zachary Cohen, a committee chair of the East Hampton Town Nature Preserve, among others.

Panelist Sandra Arnold, an advocate working to create a national burial database of enslaved Americans, the first of its kind, said documenting burial sites is a way to humanize the experience of slaves and begin to “fill in segments of a broken narrative.”

Other panelists discussed local burial sites in East Hampton, Eastville and at Sylvester Manor. Stephen Mrozowski, an archaeologist who led excavations at Sylvester Manor from 1998 to 2007, said uncovering the legacy of slavery was critical and that his work was part of the few archaeological efforts on this topic in the Northeast.

“These are hard, hard stories,” Mrozowski said. “Sylvester Manor now serves as a location to begin this process of healing.”

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