Entering the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground for the first time was an experience I’ll never forget. I walked up Snow Hill Street to the entrance and up the steps onto the grounds, where I read a standing display that held the entire layout of Copp’s Hill. There were an estimated 10,000 people buried there between 1660 and when the last body was interred in 1968. Unlike in other places around the country, Boston cemeteries in the 17th and 18th centuries were open to whites and Blacks, albeit in separate sections.
After reviewing the display, I was able to plot my course, and immediately sought out the Black section. Once there, I found a monument dedicated to the abolitionist and Black leader Prince Hall, but next to it was a huge barren plot of land running along the Snow Hill Street side down to the corner of Charter Street. It is estimated that more than 1,000 slaves and former residents of the North End’s New Guinea community, which was named for the West African nation where many of them—or their ancestors—had roots, were buried here. The historic significance of this community cannot be overstated: New Guinea is not just believed to be Boston’s very first Black community, but the first community of free Blacks in the colonies. And yet, along this entire expanse, there were only about five gravestones. My heart sank.
As a historian, I regularly visit old Boston cemeteries, particularly those in walking distance of my home in the South End/Lower Roxbury. I go to the Central Burying Ground on Boston Common; the King’s Chapel and Granary burying grounds, which are across the street from each other near Downtown Crossing; and Eliot Burying Ground in Roxbury. Boston has many of the oldest graveyards in the United States, and usually they’re meticulously cared for. There are maps, displays, and more than enough signs and markers to help you find everyone of note who’s interred there.
That was not what I found at Copp’s Hill. Near the end of that section along Snow Hill Street, where the New Guineans were buried, there’s one lone, barely legible grave marker poking up that’s for a man named Abel Barbados, who died in 1817. Each time I have gone back in the past five years since my first visit, the grave marker for Barbados, a member of the African Meeting House, seems to lean farther and farther to the right. I have to fight the urge to straighten it out. I am wracked with fear that one day it might completely fall over and end up lying on the ground in the middle of what looks like a bare patch of the cemetery.
It wasn’t merely the leaning gravestone that upset me, but, more so, what it represented. Barbados’s grave was the lone evidence in this section of the ancient burying ground that Black folks had built lives and thrived in the North End. And I felt as though it was hanging on for dear life.