Andrea Stewart, in dress, with Teresa Vega’s cousins Pat Bryant and Eddie Jones, on the site of the Byram African American Cemetery. PHOTO COURTESY OF TERESA VEGA.

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

There has been a rash of attacks on Jewish cemeteries in the U.S. in recent weeks, in which hundreds of headstones have been knocked over.

Genealogist Teresa Vega takes that news to heart.“It’s horrible,” Vega said by phone from her home in New York City. Vega will discuss the importance of saving burial grounds, and her family’s current battle to save the Byram African-American Cemetery, this Saturday, March 18, at the Montclair Public Library at 2 p.m.

Teresa Vega
Teresa Vega

“In 2017 we shouldn’t have to tell people that cemeteries are sacred spaces,” Vega said. “Cemeteries are hallowed land. Consecrated land. It is utter disrespect to descrate any cemetery.”

Preserving a cemetery as hallowed ground instead of letting it become someone’s front lawn has been a personal project for Vega for more than a year, when she first discovered that her ancestors were buried in the Byram African American Cemetery in Greenwich, Conn., and that the owners of a house abutting the burial site wanted to appropriate the grounds.Vega had discovered that she had cousins in Greenwich by using Ancestry.com, she said. Using probate wills and many primary documents, she found bills of sale for some of her ancestors, and that some were buried in Greenwich.

The “colored” cemetery is a portion of the older cemetery, she explained. There were never headstones in it, just a huge boulder. The white portion of the cemetery, up the hill, is where her white ancestors are buried, she said.
When visiting the area she met a woman who wanted to place a memorial plaque on a tree nearby. Vega thought that was lovely.What Vega didn’t know at the time was that the woman, Andrea Stewart, owned the home adjacent to the property and was trying to acquire it from the town. Greenwich already had made plans to buy the cemetery land.
“The couple is trying to claim the land as their front lawn. It’s prime waterfront real estate,” Vega said.

At a hearing in September, the couple’s lawyer tried to say that the cemetery never existed. In fact, Vega said, the Lyon family — the white side — defended against the desecration of the land in 1890 against another appropriation.

“Cemeteries are a testament to the fact that people existed, that they lived. It ties people to a particular place and time. Any cemetery allows the descendants a place to visit and connect with their ancestors over generations. There are black cemeteries across this country that disappear and people never know there were people there.”
At the library Vega will also talk about how she did the research into her family.

And being connected to both sides of her family is more important now than ever. On March 26, she will give a talk in Greenwich: “Both sides of the Lyon color line will be there. We will let them know we stood together in 1890, and we are still united.”

 

Defending the Byram African-American Cemetery’
Saturday, March 18, 2 p.m.
Montclair Public Library, 50 South Fullerton Ave.
In cooperation with the New Jersey Chapter of the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Sociaty
aahgsnj.org
Free.
Information and registration: Montclairlibrary.org, or 973-744-0500, ext. 2235