SALEM — In the far corner of Howard Street Cemetery, in a little bump-out area off the side of the burial site, three gravestones lie on the ground. Two of them are broken into pieces, shards of stone are receding into the earth.
The stones represent three Black men and women who played a role in the abolitionist movement on the North Shore, and a project to restore the stones is evolving into a larger effort to find and restore the final resting places for other African American families who were buried and long forgotten. The three — Venus Chew, Prince Farmer (with unnamed wife Mary A. Farmer), and Samuel Payne — all died between 1851 and 1852.
"If you go and destroy these gravestones — especially Venus Chew, who has almost no name recognition — then you're destroying her history," said Rachel Meyer, a stone conservator with Epoch Preservation who's worked in area cemeteries for years. "With the exception of Henry Chew, who has a plaque on his house, there aren't streets, there are a few parks that have recently been named after members of the African American society, but there aren't well-established street names or houses named after anybody."
A story is told...
The Howard Street Cemetery was established in 1801, originally under the name of Branch Street Cemetery. Today, it sits on the corner of Bridge and Howard streets, wedged between the beginning of the Bridge Street Neck neighborhood and Old Salem Jail, the outer edge of downtown Salem.
In March, local historian and blogger Donna Seger wrote about the long-dissolved Howard Street Church on streetsofsalem.com, The church, she wrote, was built along the southern border of the cemetery, first named Branch Street Church for the lane that connected Brown and Bridge streets. That street later assumed the name Howard Street, and the church took the Howard Street Church name in 1828. It later dissolved in 1864.
"There is ample evidence that the Howard Street Church served as a hub for abolitionist activities in Salem over the first half of the 19th century, but it’s hard to pay tribute to a site that is no longer there," Seger wrote. "I can’t even come up with a photograph ... which is really frustrating as the church was the creation of Samuel McIntire" — a famed Salem woodworker and builder with an entire historic district named after him.
The church had its assets auctioned off in 1867. McIntire's church building was moved to Beverly in 1869. The building was lost to arson in 1963, according to Seger.
The graves to be restored are in what Meyer described as a "southwest corner" of the cemetery, effectively segregated from the main cemetery. They occupy a square piece of land the city donated to expand the cemetery "to bury African Americans — of course, they didn't call them African Americans then — and 'strangers,'" she said.
The three stones in question have fallen over in time and were sinking into the ground when an area resident contacted Meyer about fixing them.
"It isn't like people don't know they're there," Meyer said. "There are certainly people who know. They're all there together, broken and lying down in a way that grass keeps accumulating over them. They're being claimed by the earth."
...and more are found
On Wednesday, Meyer presented to the Massachusetts Archaeological Society as part of the organization's "Diggin' In" series spotlighting archaeologists and their work. In the presentation, she described the stories represented under each gravestone and what she found when beginning the project.
When lifting the portions of Chew's headstone, there were fragments for another underneath. Some feet away from Chew's right-most grave, portions of another broken stone are well concealed by the grass growing over them.
"It's kind of a muddled history at this point, and I'm trying to piece it together," Meyer told The Salem News. "But the more I look, the more I find and the more confused I get. Then I get off track because there are other stories in here that don't have anything to do with abolition."
Toward the end of the Society presentation, Meyer listed ways to help the project and ended on ground-penetrating radar, which she said "would uncover some of the lost graves we have the names for but haven't found yet."
Doreen Wade, president of Salem United, said she's enthusiastically behind the project because of what it represents — more than just repairing fragmented gravestones, it's repairing a fragmented story of Salem's past.
"There's a lot of Black-connected history in Salem out there, but it isn't really documented completely in one area, and that's one of the projects Salem United would like to do when we finally get a building and make a Black museum," Wade said. "There's a connection with the Remonds. There's a connection with the 54th. There's a connection with the headstones in the cemetery. There's a connection with the headstones in Gloucester. But there isn't one location where all this history is documented and preserved."
To Wade, it's clear the graves were segregated given the layout. One of the other issues is that many were buried without any indication of their race, she said — meaning their race was effectively buried with them.
"In the Quaker cemetery, there's supposed to be African American headstones," Wade said, "and we're going to start looking into that as well."
But for now, there's more immediate work to do. The actual restoration work begins Sept. 1, Meyer said, because the stone repairs can't wait. But as that plays out, research at Phillips Library will endeavor toward identifying other graves.
"We still kind of treat the history of Black people or the history of women as if they're in a section of a cemetery," Meyer said. "If you allow these graves to disintegrate into the earth, you're erasing that part of the history."