Pine Hollow Cemetery, where 11 African-American Civil War veterans are buried, was placed in the National Registry of Historic Places on July 27. The small Oyster Bay cemetery, which dates back to 1884, is private, and dependent on charitable donations for its upkeep. It is owned by the Hood African Methodist Episcopal Zionist Church of Oyster Bay.
The National Registry effort took over four years — a long road for the church’s pastor, the Rev. Linda Vanager, and its members. Their journey began in February 2014, when Denice Evans-Sheppard, a congregant who is now the executive director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society, spoke with Vanager about completing the National Registry nomination application.
The process required the deed of the cemetery, which had to be found, and information about the community in 1884, Evans-Sheppard said. However, she does wonder whether the date is correct, because the church was donated to Nancy Brown in 1848, a gift from John and Alice Weeks of the Methodist Zion Church. Evans-Sheppard said with a laugh that someone involved in record-keeping may have been dyslectic, and reversed the year’s last two digits. There are several people buried in the cemetery that predate its existence, including the Civil War veterans, which also casts suspicion on the 1884 date.
The cemetery was originally called the Pine Hollow Colored Cemetery, when cemeteries were segregated. It was the Rev. Ken Nelson, the pastor at Hood A.M.E. from 1981 to 2013, who opened the cemetery to all races and religions, though Evans-Sheppard can’t remember exactly when its name was changed.
Once the application was submitted to the National Registry, Vanager waited three years for an answer. When she appeared on June 7 before the state review board in upstate Waterford, there were 19 applicants being considered that day, and Pine Hollow Cemetery was number 13. “A lot of people perceive 13 as being an unlucky number, but it was lucky for us,” said Vanager, smiling. “It was an all-day meeting and I had to speak, which I had no problem doing because I’m a preacher.”
She believes that what she said, that the cemetery was important to the community because so many members of Oyster Bay’s African American community dating back to the 1800’s are buried there and that it is a historical treasure because it is the final resting place for African American Civil War veterans convinced the board.
But she also believes that letters of support from elected leaders like Assemblyman Charles Lavine helped. Vanager received the news a week or two after appearing before the board and was told the board’s vote was unanimous to add Pine Hollow Cemetery to the National Registry of Historic Places.
“It is hallowed ground in so many ways,” said Lavine, upon hearing the news. “The cemetery is an integral part in an untold history in the hamlet. Black Americans were here as long as anyone else and the black Civil War veterans, who fought to end slavery merits respect from us all.”
For Evans-Sheppard the acquisition of inclusion in the National Registry is personal. Her great-great-grandfather, David Carll, enlisted in the Union Army in 1864 after President Lincoln’s approval that colored soldiers could join. He served as a private in the 26th U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War and fought in many battles. Carll nearly died in Georgia when his regiment was ambushed by a passing Confederate train. Only he and a friend survived. He was discharged in 1865.
Carll is buried at Pine Hollow Cemetery. Evans-Sheppard said most of her family, who came to Oyster Bay in 1795, are also buried there. She is elated and proud that the cemetery has acquired National Registry status. “We are now acknowledging that these people were here in Oyster Bay and played a part in this community in those early days,” she said. “This cemetery is not in the center of town but it’s the gateway to the town. I’m speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
There is at least one tombstone from a member of the Townsend family at Pine Hollow. Robert Townsend, George Washington’s intelligence operative during the Revolutionary War, lived at Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay. When Claire Bellerjeau, the education and public programs director at Raynham Hall, now a house museum, was asked if Elliott J. Townsend, (1891-1988) entombed at the cemetery, could be a relative of Robert, who died in 1838, she said she wasn’t sure. “In the census records you find many African Americans named Townsend,” said Bellerjeau, adding that there were also several Townsends living in Oyster Bay that didn’t live at Raynham Hall. “The problem is slaves from Raynham Hall we only have first names for with a couple of exceptions. Those that we know of with a last name are not buried at Pine Hollow.”
When asked if African Americans who were connected to the Townsends, either as slaves or as freed servants may have taken on the family name of their master/employer she said she wasn’t certain. “I’ve found sometimes they took the master’s last name and sometimes they didn’t,” she said. “Maybe they worked for people named Townsend or maybe they liked them.”
The cemetery is valuable as a historic site because there were many African Americans living in Oyster Bay, she said, and like Evans-Sheppard, believes it is important that their stories be told. “In the 1790 census I found that in Oyster Bay 16 percent of the population were African American,” she said. “That’s hundreds and hundreds of people that lived and died here. Where were they buried?”