Historian discovers long-lost grave of black pastor, abolitionist

MENANDS – Paula Lemire found an 185-year-old gravestone not through her training as a cemetery historian, but through her openness to the paranormal.

Lemire, who is the historian of the Friends of Albany Rural Cemetery, received a set of copper dowsing rods a few years ago from a friend familiar with Lemire’s stories of having a dowsing grandmother. . According to family tradition, the grandmother managed to find water using the 500-year-old method of using types of sticks to point at objects hidden under the ground. Lemire also knew of a woman who had used the practice to find buried bodies, Lemire said.

“A day earlier this summer, when I had nothing to do because of all the COVID and so on, I took (the dowsing rods) to the cemetery,” Lemire said. Her destination: land in Section 99, an area of ​​the cemetery with graves of mostly black people and families, where Lemire believed she would find Nathaniel Paul’s burial place. Born a free man in New Hampshire in 1820, Paul was appointed founding pastor of what would become the First African Baptist Church.

Known in historical circles for an 1827 sermon celebrating the abolition of slavery in New York that year, Paul died in 1835 and was buried in the State Street Burial Grounds in Albany. His grave was moved to Albany Rural, along with about 14,000 others, when cemeteries were closed and emptied to make way for Washington Park. Records indicated that Paul had been transferred to a section 99 parcel of a family that was a trustee of the church.

When Lemire first verified the family’s land a few years ago, she found a central monument and gravestone for the Patriarch but, contrary to records, no evidence of his wife or Paul. Because the Patriarch’s gravestone was tilting, Lemire suspected that the other two gravestones might have overturned at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century and long been covered in dirt and grass. .

“I knew (Paul) had to be there,” Lemire said, “but I hadn’t really looked too hard.”

Being “open to the idea” that the dowsing wands might help, Lemire said, she brought them on this visit a few months ago.

Rods unfolded, she began to walk from one corner of the plot. The stems crossed, an indication that something was detected, she said.

“I thought it could be a coincidence, it could be a snap, it could be my shaking hands,” Lemire said. She tried four or five more times. The stems always crossed in the same place, she said. She repeatedly poked a piece of a rod into different areas of the ground below.

“I kept hitting something, and I could tell it was hard and flat, like a gravestone,” she said.

Fast forward to last week, when Lemire arrived at the cemetery on another matter. She saw a truck owned by Chris White, an owner acquaintance of Albany Grave Digger, which provides genealogical research and restoration services to graves, gravestones and other cemetery items.

White had time available. They went to the homestead in Section 99. Lemire showed White where she suspected Paul’s gravestone was. He pushed the ground.

“It was clear that this was an important stone,” White said.

He gently cut the grass with a spade.

“As he started to pull back (the turf), the first thing I saw was ‘sacred in memory’, and I knew it had to be him,” Lemire said.

And then it was: “The Rev. Nath. Paul. First pastor of Hamilton Street Baptist Church in that city.

“His name was literally where my dowsing wands crossed,” Lemire said. “I let out a silent cry of joy.”

White estimated the marble headstone to be 7 feet long, 40 inches wide, and 3 inches thick. He covered it with sod until he returned with Lemire over the weekend to examine and completely excavate the stone. If it is intact, White, who is donating his services, will clean the stone, dig a hole, build a foundation and raise Paul’s stone vertically, which could only take a few days, Lemire said. The process will take longer if the stone has fractures or needs repair. He and Lemire will then search the plot for the stone of the Patriarch’s wife and repeat the process they carried out on Paul’s gravestone.

“I hope it isn’t broken or knocked over,” White said. “It’s a big stone, so if it started to tilt, gravity would eventually take its course, and it would fall, lay flat and cover itself.” It could be intact.

Lemire said she was thrilled with the find, which she plans to document for The Friends of Albany Rural newsletter. Perhaps there will be a groundbreaking ceremony in the fall. She and White believe Paul’s remains are probably under his gravestone. Considering the 34 years between his burial and his relocation to Albany Rural, the casket would likely have disintegrated and his bones would have been placed in a smaller box.

“It’s important,” Lemire said. Speaking of Paul, she said, “He was an important figure, even though he was overlooked. Being able to find it, knowing where it is and documenting it is very exciting.

About James Almanza

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