Vandals Target Historic African-American Cemetery in New York

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A local preservation group discovered missing flags at the African American Cemetery in Rye, New York. Courtesy FAAC Facebook.
A local preservation group discovered missing flags at the African American Cemetery in Rye, New York. Courtesy FAAC Facebook.

A 150-year-old African-American cemetery was the target of vandal activity over the Memorial Day weekend.

Dozens of American flags were ripped from poles that stood beside the headstones of men who fought and died in the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II.

The African American Cemetery, part of the Greenwood Union Cemetery in Rye, New York, dates back to 1860, when it was gifted to town residents by the Halsted family on the condition, Patch.com notes, that it “shall forever hereafter kept, held and used for the purpose of a cemetery or burial place for the colored inhabitants of the said town of Rye and its vicinity free and clear of any charge therefor…”

The site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as registers for New York State and Westchester County.

Port Chester native David Thomas formed Friends of the African American Cemetery, a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the historic burial grounds, last September. Thomas made the discovery Saturday morning, as he prepared for an annual Memorial Day service to commemorate the fallen heroes.

He said American Legion members first alerted him to the missing flags.

He gave an account of the incident in a May 31 post to the group’s Facebook page.

“On Saturday, May 28, 2016, while at the AfAm cemetery setting up for the services, I noticed Hank Birdsall of the American Legion Post# 93. I thought Mr. Birdsall was placing more flags but he stated that he and another Post# 93 member had placed flags the week prior and when he returned on Friday, May 27, to make sure everything was ok he noticed that some of the flags were missing. Upon closer inspection he noticed that someone had ripped the flags from the sticks and left the sticks by the headstones.”

Thomas notes at least 35 flags were removed from the plots. He said the vandals deliberately left the empty sticks in place, putting the new flags next to them. He said that while the organization did not know who the perpetrators were or why they committed the act, the damage appeared to be limited to the African-American portion of the cemetery.

Local news website lohud.com highlighted the cemetery and Thomas in a news feature just days before the incident.

The publication spoke with a local law enforcement official, who said detectives gathered evidence for processing but there were currently no suspects.

“It’s a strange type of thing that happened,” Rye Police Commissioner Michael Corcoran said. “It seems like the damage was confined to the African-American section.”

Thomas said Saturday’s incident was indicative of widespread tensions faced by African-Americans in this country.

“Not only is this a sign of disrespect to those interred at the site but it is a disturbing reminder of the current wave of intolerance displayed by those who strive to separate us and strip us of our identities as citizens of the United States,” Thomas told the Rye Daily Voice.

“Who gets to decide who is an American? Where are our flags?”

Thomas, with the help of the local NAACP chapter, Building Community Bridges, and the American Legion Post 93, has organized yearly Veterans and Memorial Day ceremonies at the cemetery since 2010.

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