CHESHIRE — Hillside Cemetery is chock-full of the histories and mysteries of the town and its former residents.
But one current resident claims that her research has uncovered some controversial information about activities that have gone on within the cemetery’s gates.
Christine Pittsley, a historian who works for the Connecticut State Library, published a blog post on Oct. 20 presenting her research regarding the northeast corner of Hillside Cemetery, where she claims African Americans, including some former slaves, had been buried over decades.
“In the northeast corner of the old section of Hillside Cemetery is a roughly quarter-acre area that was used as the African burying place until at least 1935,” she explained. “Most are in unmarked graves, some have stones with their names on them, but a majority of them have no (identification) whatsoever.”
The issue, according to Pittsley, is that the Hillside Cemetery Association had been performing burials on these grounds until 2011, despite knowing, Pittsley claims, that individuals had already been buried there, and having offered no notification to the state or the families of those involved.
“Thirty years ago, the Association started selling those plots as if no one was buried there. They (were) digging graves for modern burials and disturbing the African remains that are already buried there,” Pittsley said. “They cannot be doing this.”
Pittsley’s research is extensive, and lists names of people — specifically members of the Freeman family — who she believes were buried in that location and have been disturbed by the Hillside Cemetery Association.
“In the 1980s, the Hillside Cemetery Association decided that this area was empty and began to sell plots,” she wrote in her post. “Never mind that in the center of this section were four stones that belonged to Prince Freeman and his wife Lucy (d. 1831 & 1833); Prince’s son Henry Peter Freeman (d. 1882); Henry’s second wife Flora (d. 1880); and Henry’s grandson Lewis Freeman (d. 1935). Clearly, there were already some people there.”
Pittsley states that she presented her findings to the cemetery association 10 years ago with the hopes of stopping the continued burials, but was met with resistance. In her blog post, Pittsley describes the meeting as respectful, but states that some cemetery association members were aggressive in disputing her presentation. Pittsley told The Herald that the reaction went beyond just questioning her research.
“Some of the members began attacking my credibility, me personally, which is just disappointing and sad,” she stated.
The Hillside Cemetery Association disputes Pittsley’s claims, stating that they had no records of grave sites in the north end of the cemetery when burials were taking place there and that, after 2011, when the state told them to halt all such activity, no new burials took place.
“… We have no idea where she is getting her proof,” said Phyllis Perry, the Hillside Cemetery Association’s secretary and treasurer, of Pittsley’s accusations that the group knowingly disturbed existing graves. “We have erected monuments (In the northeast corner) recently, and maybe that is what she is referencing. There was an incident where a family member, who had purchased a burial plot in that location with their other family members, needed to be buried in that area. We tried to call the state and let them know what was happening, but we never got a call back, so we proceeded with the burial with no issue.”
In Pittsley’s blog post, she references stakes in the ground that served as grave markers on the site in question, some of which even had the names of those buried etched on the side. However, Perry, whose family has taken care of the cemetery for multiple generations, rebuts Pittsley’s claim that there are stakes in the ground at the northeast location.
“She says that there are stakes in the ground there, but we have no clue what she is taking about,” Perry added. “Even our groundskeeper, who knows the land well, has no idea where (on the property) she is referencing or what stakes she is talking about.”
Perry, however, does acknowledge the meeting with Pittsley a decade ago, insisting that she was unaware of the African American grave sites until that time.
“A lot of the old cemetery documents I have are not very detailed. They didn’t keep good track of who was being buried where back then, so it can get very confusing,” Perry said.
Regarding the stakes, Pittsley acknowledged that they were likely removed or had decayed before the HCA became involved with the cemetery. However, she questions how the HCA would not have known about the burial site, given the available information.
“In larger cemeteries, like Hillside, the surveyors split the cemetery into sections to divide the work. These records were then compiled, printed, and made available to the public. Every library and historical society in the state has a copy and I am sure many cemeteries around the state have them as well,” she explained. “I pointed to this research when I addressed the HCA more than 10 years ago, so they were aware. But if the HCA maintains that they were unaware of these records, it would show a serious lack of interest or concern with their own history.”
Another assertion made by Pittsley in her post is that a member of the HCA admitted to her that human remains had been uncovered during more modern burials, but that burials continued and neither the state nor families of individuals buried in the area were notified. Pittsley, in her post, does not name the individual who allegedly divulged this information.
Perry, when asked about this accusation, strongly denied the claim that any bones or remains were uncovered while performing any modern burials at that location.
“There have been no bones dug up during any of our modern burials or in the process of preparing a grave for a burial,” Perry said. “We would have to notify the state if that happened.”
After Pittsley published her findings on her blog, the post began attracting all kinds of attention.
“The response has actually been very positive,” she said. “A lot of people are horrified to find out this information. My goal is to hopefully start a (general) discussion about racism and how Cheshire has a complicated history with that.”
Two local groups — Rams Against Racism and the Cheshire Coalition for Change — approached Pittsley and invited her to present her research findings via a Zoom meeting last month.
“I know the descendants of the people who were buried there, and they are disgusted. I want to bring light to this issue so we can deal with this as a town and, hopefully, come to grips with this uncomfortable history,” she explained.