Uncovering a Cemetery's Lost Black History, Stone by Stone

Older relatives would sometimes tell stories about life on Sourland Mountain, where many people worked in peach orchards that thrived the...


Older relatives would sometimes tell stories about life on Sourland Mountain, where many people worked in peach orchards that thrived there in the late 1800s. But even as adults, they said, they didn’t give much thought to the older stones near the center of the Stoutsburg cemetery.

“We just buried people there, and then went about our business,” Ms. Mills said.

In 2006, Ms. Buck, whose husband is the cemetery’s president, got a call from an older white man in a nearby town. His neighbor was planning to build a driveway across what he believed to be an unmarked African-American burial ground, and he wanted help stopping it.

“The more he talked to us, the madder we got,” Ms. Buck recalled.

She and Ms. Mills found themselves hiring an archaeologist and poring over 19th-century wills — and contacting the local press and the state attorney general. The property owner dropped his plans.

“But it made us think, we better go to our own graveyard and see who we have buried there,” Ms. Buck said. “And that snowballed into the book.”

In the 19th century, Sourland Mountain — named, some say, for the poor quality of its soil — had a reputation as a remote, hardscrabble, even dangerous place. And its Black settlements did not go unnoted by white chroniclers, who sometimes peddled exaggerated stories. In 1883, a white doctor and local historian published an oral biography of Sylvia Dubois, a formerly enslaved woman who ran a rough-and-tumble tavern on the mountain (and who was said to have lived to the age of 115).

A few years earlier, in 1880, a correspondent from The New York Times had come through. He was there to cover a sensational murder trial, but ended up filing a long dispatch under the blaring headline “A REMARKABLE COLONY OF BARBARIANS IN THE MIDST OF CIVILIZATION.”

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Newsrust: Uncovering a Cemetery's Lost Black History, Stone by Stone
Uncovering a Cemetery's Lost Black History, Stone by Stone
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