Rediscovery of African American cemetery connects St. John’s Cold Spring Harbor with its complicated history

By Caleb Galaraga
Posted Jun 23, 2023

St. John’s Episcopal Church, Cold Spring Harbor, New York, is participating in the Diocese of Long Island’s Uncovering Parish Histories project. Photo: Courtesy of St. John’s

[Episcopal News Service] In 2016 shortly after the Very Rev. Gideon Pollach arrived at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Cold Spring Harbor, New York, while on a tour of the church’s property, he learned of a “slave cemetery” located on church grounds.

The mention struck Pollach, who before becoming rector of St. John’s served as a trustee of an African American cemetery at Fort Ward Park in Alexandria, Virginia, where he’d served eight years as the chaplain of an Episcopal high school.

“I immediately realized, gosh, this is a very sensitive issue that should be handled with great care, treated with great dignity and honored with great respect,” Pollach told Episcopal News Service. Then, he said, as admitted in a March 2018 blog post on St. John’s website, searching for the cemetery “moved into the deep background of my mind.”

St John’s is one of the 10 Diocese of Long Island churches participating in the Uncovering Parish Histories project, which provides research assistance to parishes investigating their history of involvement with slavery, the slavery-driven economy, anti-slavery and abolition movements, and later forms of racial justice or injustice. Up to 200 enslaved and freed African Americans are believed to be buried in what is now called Harbor Road Burying Ground. (See related story here.) 

St. John’s is in Cold Spring Harbor, a hamlet overseen by the town of Huntington. In the church’s first recorded vestry minutes dated Sept. 4, 1831, John Hewlett Jones offered to sell three-quarters of an acre of land for $300, with the condition that “no other building than a church for the Protestant Episcopal Society shall ever be built… the pews to be let as they think best.”

The Jones and Hewlett families of Cold Spring Harbor are St. John’s founders. According to the church’s website, the parish was “very much under their aegis” in its early years, to the extent that “some in the community even considered it to be a family chapel.”

The family’s wealth came from its vast enterprise that included a grist mill, a general store and two woolen mills, according to the Long Island History Journal.

“A lot of people depended on the family for jobs,” said Robert Hughes, historian for the town of Huntington, in an interview with ENS. Before slavery was abolished, the Jones and Hewlett families enslaved African Americans, he added.

“Typically, two or three in a household,” Hughes said of the number of people affluent Long Island families enslaved. “The Jones family may have had a few more because they were wealthy, but certainly no more than 10.”

During Pollach’s first year as St. John’s rector, Denise Evans-Sheppard, executive director of Oyster Bay Historical Society, came to his office looking for the place where her ancestors were buried.

Pollach referred her to the St. John’s Church Memorial Cemetery, located a mile away from the chapel. The cemetery was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., whose legendary father designed New York City’s Central Park and who was a staunch abolitionist.

But Evans-Sheppard said she had already been to the memorial cemetery and couldn’t find her ancestors there. Then, Pollach mentioned the “slave cemetery.”

“Well, my people weren’t enslaved. But, if it’s an African American cemetery, they might be there,” she told the St. John’s rector.

In his 2018 blog post for the church, Pollach wrote that his use of the word slave was “ill-informed and used too casually, perhaps.”

“It won’t be the last mistake I make in this project,” he wrote.

Still, there was the question of its exact location.  “There was a vague knowledge that this cemetery existed,” Pollach told ENS.

On the east side of Harbor Road, a main thoroughfare in Cold Spring Harbor, is an elevated patch of land measuring around a third of an acre. It’s a good 15-minute walk from the St. John’s chapel and across the street from the rectory. Hidden by tall trees, adjacent to the town’s water district building and near a dilapidated house, there were no fences surrounding the area, although there was a sign indicating it was state property.

An archival photo of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Photo: Courtesy of St. John’s

The property was on the fringes of a parcel of land given to the church in 1920. According to St. John’s curate, the Rev. Mary Beth Mills-Curran, it’s possible that the town later seized the property to create the water district facility. The uncertainty regarding the site’s owner may have contributed to its condition, Mills-Curran said.

It was neglected for years, and people dumped garbage and unwanted household goods and appliances in the area.

Pollach said that there was no reason for a parishioner at St. John’s to regularly encounter the site because none of the descendants were in relationship with the parish.

“It was out of sight, out of mind,” Pollach said, noting that this wasn’t an excuse, just the reality that the descendants had become distanced from the church.

Evans-Sheppard still lives in the house her great-great-grandfather David Carll built in Oyster Bay, a neighboring town of Huntington. But according to interviews she gave Long Island-based publications, including Newsday, her family is originally from Cold Spring Harbor and worked for the Jones as paid laborers.

One of them is Lewis Carll, who worked for the Jones family as a chauffeur in the late 1700s. Subsequent generations of Carll family members moved to Oyster Bay and were buried at Pine Hollow cemetery, which was established in 1884. Lewis Carll died in the 1860s.

Evans-Sheppard told Newsday she had been trying to locate his grave for years and pored over St. John’s records as part of her research. But she said back then, church leaders at St. John’s knew there was an African American cemetery on church property but didn’t know where it was located.

In October 2017, Pollach and Evans-Sheppard met again, this time at the rectory. During this meeting, the St. John’s rector said he thought that the neglected area, across the street from his home, could be the cemetery Evans-Sheppard was looking for.

They crossed the street onto the hilltop with the state property sign. Overgrown shrubs and trees were shading the area, and a mass of fallen leaves made it impossible to see anything on the ground.

As Pollach remembers, when they arrived on the spot, “Denise immediately said she felt something, like a presence, a connection to her descendants.” They stopped in what they now believe is a burial ground. They then prayed together, for each other and the descendants of those buried there.

“We thank God for the opportunity to be together in that space,” Pollach said, “so that we could work together to care for it in the future.” Evans-Sheppard believes Lewis Carll is buried there and she now serves as the primary connection of St. John’s to the living descendants.

On March 3, 2018, volunteers from St. John’s, the town of Huntington’s director of minority affairs Kevin Thorbourne, Pollach and Hughes, the town’s historian, cleaned up the grounds. Their work made visible three dozen graves marked by stones placed in rows and columns and two traditional marble headstones, for Alfred Thorn and Patience Thorn, who is believed to be his mother.

Alfred, who died on Feb. 3, 1900, worked for a Jones descendant and, like Lewis Carll two centuries earlier, was a coachman. An archaeologist from Preservation Long Island said it’s possible up to 200 people are interred at the site.

Mills-Curran, Pollach and the town’s officials, with the help of Evans-Sheppard, are working to identify those who are buried at Harbor Road and their connection to St. John’s. The Diocese of Long Island’s historian-in-residence, the Rev. Craig Townsend, who oversees Uncovering Parish Histories, assisted Pollach and Mills-Curran in their historical research.

The cleanup is now an annual effort, and those buried on the grounds are remembered on All Souls Day. The church and the community also worked to beautify the area, planting tulips and snow bulbs to mark the site. A fence was also built.

“We want the graves and the headstones, the informal headstones to be visible to people who pass by,” Pollach said, of the cemetery now called the Harbor Road Burying Ground.

-Caleb Galaraga is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, Rappler and The Algemeiner Journal.