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Sayville church celebrates Black History Month

Members of the clergy at St. Ann's Episcopal

Members of the clergy at St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Sayville dedicate Nannie Dillard's gravestone. (Feb. 6, 2011) Credit: Erin Geismar

Behind St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Sayville, a cemetery labeled The Garden of the Unforgotten is blanketed by snow. Though the plots are buried, tall gray gravestones jut up from the ground to mark their place.

Except for the grave of one woman, who members of the church feared would one day be forgotten.

Nannie Dillard was a black woman who came to Sayville from Virginia in 1898 and worked as a maid at a local hotel for four months until she fell ill and died at the age of 23.

Dillard, already a widow when she arrived, was also a mother of one and had left her child in Virginia while she looked for work.

According to Dillard's obituary, which was republished in the St. Ann's service program on Sunday, Dillard was so well liked by the patrons of the hotel where she had worked that they paid for her medical bills and funeral service, despite the racial tensions of the time.

"Many people, not only of her race but also of ours, were present at the church and at the grave," the obituary reads.

Though Dillard was buried in the Garden of the Unforgotten in 1898, she had never received a gravestone until Sunday, when church clergy dedicated one. It will be placed at her burial site when the snow melts.

The story of a woman who endured such hardship and whose character apparently broke through the bounds of racism was celebrated by the St. Ann's congregation on Sunday, in honor of both her gravestone dedication and Black History Month.

In addition to the church’s gravestone dedication, the Town of Islip will officially recognize Feb. 6 as Nannie Dillard Day, Town Historian Robert Finnegan announced at the church’s reception.

Finnegan said the town wanted to recognize the hard work of the St. Ann’s Historical Society, which discovered Dillard’s obituary and researched her life.

“This shows that Sayville was a tight-knit, close community, as is the Town of Islip,” he said.

The Rev. Farrell Graves gave a special sermon during Sunday’s services. In it, he spoke about his experience teaching English to migrant workers in California and a similar program on Long Island, during which he had come to know the struggles they face as they travel around the country in search of work.

In many ways, he said, the economic system that forced Nannie Dillard to leave her home and child have not changed in more than 100 years.

“Given the justifications we have and the ability to turn a blind eye,” he said to the congregation. “The kindness Nannie found here was remarkable.”

He said that the Sayville community went beyond what was expected of them when they chose to care for Dillard rather than shun her, and he hoped his sermon reminded people that the same standard should be applied today.

Constance Currie, president of the St. Ann’s Historical Society, said members of the historical society came across Dillard’s obituary while they were researching some of the unnamed plots in the cemetery and it immediately caught their attention.

Currie said Dillard’s inspiring story and the message it sends about breaking down racial barriers was one that ought to be remembered and celebrated - even if it is 113 years late.

"After all these years,” she said. “We should show some care for her, too.”


Pictured: Members of the clergy at St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Sayville dedicate Nannie Dillard's gravestone. (Feb. 6, 2011)

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