The tale of Alfred Griffin — who fended off bloodhounds while fleeing slavery and later fought for the Union during the Civil War — has been passed down for generations at Hauppauge United Methodist Church.
When Griffin died around 1897, obituaries described his work as a highly respected master bricklayer who often did "nearly the work of two men." Yet, he was buried without a headstone.
Trustees of the church's cemetery spent the past two years working to obtain marble markers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the graves of Griffin and two other veterans interred there. The headstones were placed about a month ago. Now, the church board and a local branch of the Society of the Grand Army of the Republic, a nonprofit dedicated to Civil War education, have planned a graveside dedication ceremony for the veterans on Saturday, ahead of Juneteenth, the federal holiday recognizing the end of slavery in 1865.
“We have always known about our cemetery having Griffin in there,” said Nancy Wanamaker, a trustee of the cemetery. “So this is a big thing, that we’re finally recognizing veterans … They were never recognized.”
In addition to Griffin, the cemetery board has obtained tombstones for Wesley Wheeler, a Civil War veteran from the Union Army, and World War I veteran David Walker, who, like Griffin, was Black. Walker died in 1919 and Wheeler in 1920.
Wanamaker said Griffin had a "marker stone" and Walker had a "very, very old" headstone. A marker stone is a "flat stone that's placed so that in the future, when somebody has the money, they put the stone on top of this placer stone," she said.
The Society of the Grand Army of the Republic helped obtain the government-issued headstones, which required applications and, for Griffin and Wheeler, because their service predated World War I, detailed documentation proving military service.
Joseph Vermaelen, the society's treasurer general, said Griffin’s pension records were used to obtain his military headstone and Wheeler’s service card was used for his headstone.
The nonprofit also surveyed the cemetery to determine the exact burial site of each veteran.
“Both Alfred Griffin and Walker are African American servicemen who served during a time when the country required their service and yet at the same time, the country didn’t truly go out of their way to honor their service. So we wanted to correct that,” Vermaelen said, pointing out that in the Civil War, for example, Black soldiers in the Union army were paid less than their white counterparts.
"Juneteenth Day celebrates the freedom and the goal of freedom for all Americans," Vermaelen said. It "is really the celebration of the end of an evil institution, the stain that marked the United States for its first 100 years as a country."
Vermaelen said reenactors will present an honor volley at Saturday's ceremony at the cemetery, and that several other organizations have been invited to the event.
“It will be a nice tribute to three veterans who have gone for almost over 100 years, really 100 years, without being recognized,” he added. “The public should know that these men are here.”
Headstones for veterans
Trustees of the Hauppauge Rural Cemetery, adjacent to the Hauppauge Methodist Church, and the Society of the Grand Army of the Republic are hosting a ceremony to dedicate newly placed military headstones for three veterans at 10 a.m. Saturday at 473 Townline Rd.