The Town of Greenwich has taken steps to acquire three abandoned cemeteries, including The Byram African-American Cemetery. Our family supports the Town of Greenwich, Conservation Commission, Cemetery Commission, Greenwich Historical Society, and Greenwich Preservation Trust as they move forward in acquiring and preserving these three historic cemeteries.
As descendants of Lyon slaves and slave owners, our position is that any change to The Byram African-American Cemetery was and is a desecration to the cemetery and to the memory of everyone buried there. The Lyon Family specifically created this cemetery as a finally resting place for their slaves as well as free blacks, who were most likely their former slaves, so it is also disrespectful to the memory and original intentions of the Lyon Family who are buried above the Byram African-American Cemetery. There should be no expectations of neutrality on this issue from the descendants of the Green/Merritt family. None whatsoever
How Does One Respond When the Memory of Your Ancestors’ Burial Ground Is Denied by Greed?”
It’s 6 am on the morning on September 23, 2016 and I am bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and I may be even just a tad bit strident, too. I had the opportunity yesterday to make our public statement about the Byram African-American Cemetery — the place where our family’s ancestors are buried along with some of the other earliest African-American residents of the Town of Greenwich. It was the first time our family has ever stood up for our ancestors and others in public. Imagine our surprise when we heard someone give voice to those who had desecrated our ancestral burial ground by greed DENY the existence of the actual Byram African-American Cemetery. I remind you that this is the same cemetery that these same people offered to put a plaque on a tree for us almost a month ago. Yes, they tried, and epically failed, to sway us with a plaque in memory of a cemetery they now believe never existed. You heard me right. I visited the cemetery with two of my cousins and we all heard the same thing. Our hearing was fine then and is fine now.
I was grateful that I had my cousins with me yesterday from both sides of the Lyon color line. They were there with me in person and via the statements they wrote in support of the Byram African-American Cemetery though all of them refer to the place as the “African-American portion of the Old Cemetery.” The reason they all refer to this cemetery this way is because that was how their own Lyon family oral history recorded it. Because none of my ancestors were able to tell us about this particular cemetery, I now take comfort in, as well as full ownership, of my Lyon cousins’ family oral history regarding the Byram African-American Cemetery. A big thank you to Chris, Charles, Julie and all my other Lyon cousins who shared this history with me. Yesterday, we sat at the hearing knowing that our ancestors were just as proud of us as they were when our other Lyon ancestors stood up for what was right in 1890. We gladly followed in their footsteps. History matters. Truth matters. Our shared family history matters and it is hidden no more. Out of the darkness of slavery born in Greenwich, we are bringing our shared family history to light together.
I sit here and now marvel at how convenient it is to claim that the Byram African-American Cemetery never existed in the first place. The more they talk, the more questions we have. Does the denial of the very existence of the Byram African-American Cemetery, and the people buried there by extension, have anything to do with them increasing the value of their prime waterfront real estate by their front-lawn hijacking of our ancestors’ burial ground? Why make up unfounded claims that are easily disputed by the documented evidence about the Byram African-American Cemetery? Did not our Lyon ancestors, who originally owned the land, have the right to determine where the Byram African-American Cemetery was located? Why should it’s shape and location even matter? Why would our Lyon ancestors stand up for our African-American ancestors in 1890, which was recorded in The Port Chester Journal at the time, if the cemetery never existed? Where is the proof that a barn was ever located on the cemetery grounds for decades especially since the owner of the home conceded to protecting “The Colored Cemetery,” which was also noted in The Port Chester Journal, at the time? Why would all those Byram Lyons sign a petition in 1890 to protect the “The Colored Cemetery” if the cemetery wasn’t an actual place? Did they even consider that the Lyons, who lived all around Byram in 1890, may have actually known some of the African-American people buried there in their lifetime which is why they stood up for them in the first place? Why would the statements of two individuals in this century carry more weight than the documented, actual words and deeds of people who knew of “The Colored Cemetery” in the 19th Century? How did their Ground Penetrating Radar Survey — one that only detected metal — become a substitute for a professional archaeological excavation that searches for the presence of human remains? Is it now more politically expedient for them to blame a previous owner rather than admit that they did all the damage to the cemetery in the first place? Why did they admit to my cousins and me less than a month ago that they had in fact “beautified the property” if they are now claiming someone else did it? Does insinuating that the Byram African-American Cemetery never existed make them sleep easier at night after they desecrated it? Does “cooperating” with the Town of Greenwich really necessitate the denial of the actual existence of the cemetery and the people buried there? Did they even consider that we can clearly see this for what it is –an illegal land grab of an abandoned cemetery — for greed? Why did they even offer to put a plaque on a tree for us when they knew what the Town of Greenwich was proposing instead? Did they really think we would want a plaque on a tree that could be taken on and off as they pleased after hearing that the Town of Greenwich was considering making the cemetery an actual historic designated African-American one? Did they even consider how INSULTING it was for us to even listen to the nonsense they proposed yesterday? My inquiring mind would like to know. My ancestors buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery, Byram Cemetery and the Lyon Cemetery would like to know. Certainly, my Lyon ancestors, who are buried above the boulder, have a very vested interest in especially knowing since they intended to create a sacred burial space so that their slaves, ex-slaves, and their slave descendants, like our family, could rest in peace undisturbed.
Ancestor Slave Research and The Issue of Historical Erasure
For those of us who are descendants of people who were enslaved, it is a constant battle to find our ancestors without the normal genealogical paper trails that others use with ease. We are left sifting through wills and inventories, digging through slave owner family papers, searching tax records of slave owners, researching newspaper ads and articles, etc. just looking for our ancestors’ names. And even then, if we are lucky, we only have vague traces of our ancestors existence. The lack of “proof of ancestor existence” is always out there reminding us of how our ancestors lives were minimized even in death. Our ancestors were considered property and their lives were not seen as being valid — of being worthy — of remembrance. Tears. The ancestral battles we have to fight are many. So, if you wonder why I repeatedly say this in my blogposts, it’s because people need to be constantly reminded that the historical erasure of African-Americans in this country, on so many levels, is real and ever present. Once you acknowledge how hard it is to find out any concrete information on any African-American ancestor, then you can also truly appreciate the information found because it wasn’t easy finding it in the first place.
Sometimes, we search for our slave ancestors to no avail. Our family lines, by historic design, become lost to us for eternity. But when we do find our slave ancestors, after looking sometimes for years and years, their presence on our family trees become all that much sweeter and richer. We find a piece of our historical selves that that no one can ever take away from us again. Finding our slave ancestors means that we can claim victory over that aspect of slavery which was designed to prevent this sort of family reunion in the future. When I found our Peg and Anthony a year ago, I won’t lie, I danced, screamed, shouted and I will continue to do so. We got the victory for sure.
On the Byram African-American Cemetery
Our family is an old Greenwich family with white and black Lyon roots stretching back to the 1600s. Our Greens and Merritts were part of Greenwich when Greenwich was just a town filled with “gentleman farmers,” as our cousin Chris says. We represent that old Greenwich that can’t be denied by any newcomer. Nope. Our Green-Merritt line left a lot of information behind over their 250+ year existence in this town. The memory of where our Peg, Anthony, our other ancestors as well as other early African-Americans residents of Greenwich are buried, will not be conveniently erased now by those who have alternate agendas, seek to profit off prime waterfront real estate or by those who believe that historical homes and places don’t matter in the present. The Byram African-American Cemetery, also known by its previous name “The Colored Cemetery,” was a real physical location that existed when our Lyon family created their two other cemeteries. It existed so that their slaves, ex-slaves, and slave descendants would have a sacred burial ground of their own. Shame on those who now suggest that it didn’t exist at all. Shame on you indeed. Their wishful thinking is futile.
It’s 7 am now and I am, more now than ever, adamant about protecting the memory and cultural legacy of my ancestors, who are buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery, as well as all of the other African-Americans buried there. There is no time to be wary when so much work is yet to be done and battles yet to be fought. I thank all my ancestors and extended family for keeping me strong and steadfast in this regard. We stand united still. Our ancestors are no doubt smiling down on us.
Here is the complete Board of Selectman Meeting at Greenwich Town Hall. The full discussion of the cemeteries begins at the 51:00 mark. Please click on the link here.
Though the video below deals with the desecration of an Afro-Canadian cemetery, it certainly reflects the same sentiments we feel over the Byram African-American Cemetery and the denial that it never existed. Those people buried there are our ancestors. I will