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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Salem’s Forgotten African Americans

By William A. Cormier
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved by the author.

A Research Journey Begins

Little did I suspect that a telephone call in February 2002 from an Albany man, Lloyd Stewart, searching for his ancestors, would result in the larger discovery (for me) of Salem’s near-forgotten African-American presence of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Stewart’s ancestral names, Van Vranken and Burke, were two names that I recognized from my work as town and village historian, and as I searched the historical records for them, I discovered that Van Vrankens, Burkes and other African Americans were buried in the “African Grounds” in Evergreen Cemetery and also in the Revolutionary War Cemetery or “Old Burying Ground.”

The design of Evergreen Cemetery, built in 1859, reflected the attitudes of mainstream American society in the Victorian period. The cemetery committee, with the help of William Blair and Dr. Asa Fitch Jr., among other prominent Salem citizens, engaged the services of J. C. Sidney, of Philadephia, to design the cemetery. Sidney was considered one of the most talented landscape gardeners in the country, and his design resulted in a grand landscape of tree and shrub lined avenues and lily filled ponds.[1] As citizens purchased lots they place ornate mausoleums, gravestones and statues at the grave sites, creating the grandeur of this cemetery that is evident today.