On Saturday, the Town of Montgomery Sacred Place of My Ancestors (SPOMA) Committee paid tribute to Black History Month with a virtual wreath-laying ceremony at the Town of Montgomery African American Cemetery.
The SPOMA Committee is tasked with the revitalization and care of the town’s 18th Century African American Cemetery located on New York State Route 416. The group is led by Dionne Boissard, who also serves on two town committees, and Lisa Ruiz, one of the founders of Valley Central Parents for Social Justice. Members include Executive Director of the Business Council of Greater Montgomery Randi Picarello, Village of Walden Trustee Willie Carley, Recreation and Parks Director for Walden and the Town of Montgomery Michael Bliss, Town of Montgomery Highway Superintendent Shaun Meres as well as many others. In order to learn about the lives of those buried in the cemetery, the committee has gathered runaway slave notices, for sale slave notices, slave wills, deeds and census information.
Students at Valley Central High School are also gaining a better understanding of Black history in the Town of Montgomery. The Valley Central High School Student Diversity Club was also introduced at Saturday’s event. These students gather to share information about each other’s cultures, stereotypes and racial issues, providing members with a better understanding and appreciation of the diverse community of the district.
Arianna Santana, a student at the Hudson Valley Conservatory, kicked things off by singing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Later on, Jestina O’Bryant sang the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, a song that describes the struggles of Black Americans and urges them to persevere.
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us,” O’Bryant sang. “Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on ‘til victory is won.”
Baba Terry of the African Cultural Center of the Greater Hudson Valley gave a libation, a ritual pouring of a liquid to honor all of the Black ancestors, followed by a prayer.
“We pay reverence to those ancestors today,” he said. “We ask that they continue to give us direction, they continue to give us guidance.”
Assemblyman Brian Miller, Sen. James Skoufis, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus and Montgomery Town Supervisor Brian Maher all offered statements underscoring the importance of the ceremony.
“This month is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the immense contributions of so many wonderful people from the Black community throughout the history of our great nation, but also a time to remember the 400 years of struggle this community has endured...,” Miller said in a statement read by Maher. “As we lay wreaths to remember the slaves who were buried here in the 18th century, we remember that their struggles are still pertinent in our society today. Though we have made great strides toward equality, more must be done.”
Skoufis announced over livestream that it is important to celebrate the achievements of Black Americans, while acknowledging the suffering they have endured, which is an important aspect of this nation’s history. Neuhaus added that it is important to celebrate Black History Month, as black Americans have contributed to the growth of Orange County.
“African Americans have been important benefactors in the development of Orange County,” Neuhaus said in a statement given by Maher. “They have served as leaders and renowned professionals and among other fields business, music, dance and education and healthcare. We are proud of the many contributions that Black Americans have made to our county’s wonderful history and appreciate Montgomery’s contributions to recognize them.”
Renowned sculptor Vinnie Bagwell gave a preview of the artwork she will prepare for the cemetery. She has crafted sculptures such as “The First Lady of Jazz Ella Fitzgerald”, the first sculpture of a contemporary African-American woman to be commissioned by a municipality in the United States. In 2018, she erected a seven-foot bronze statue of Hartford educator, Walter “Doc” Hurley, which became the first public artwork of a contemporary African American in the State of Connecticut. She noted that her artwork provides storytelling, giving people a lens to better understand the challenges black people have faced.
“My work will allow contemporary viewers to envision a collective history that recognizes the range and complexity of the Black experience, in New York State, in the Town of Montgomery, in the nation,” Bagwell said.
Maher is excited for all the work that is yet to be done at the cemetery. He believes the revitalization will help make the Town of Montgomery a more accepting and welcoming place.
“Darkness does not drive out darkness, only light can do that,” he said. “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Let this project of restoring this historic cemetery be the light that Dr. King was talking about and let our love, that of the committee, the community and everyone watching this today be the driving force that will bring us to where we want to be as a community and as a country.”