Columns

Equal Time: Removing the sign from the burial site was a grave mistake

“Like a chain link fence just below the surface of the ground, all the families in Orient are connected.”

George Ritchie Latham Jr.

We Orienters are not only all connected, we are all imbued with a sense of pride of place, a sense of pride of heritage, pride of family, pride of community and we are all desperately proud and protective of our participation in the American experiment.

We all share the American values of fair play, of equality regardless of our race, creed, color, gender or sexual orientation. This is true whether we have been here for three years or 300 years. It is true if we are descendents of Terrys, Lathams, Tuthills, Youngs, Tabors, Kings and many more. It is also true if we have just arrived from Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Azores, Poland, Puerto Rico or Central America.

And so it is, too, that when someone or some organization tinkers with our past, our heritage, it takes away from our sense of connectedness with our ancestors, with our history. And this is true whether it has to do with the best of our virtues or the worst. We are no more shy about our shortcomings than we are proud of our best ideals. We are who we are. We are who we have been. We want it all recognized and remembered. 

Thus it was that a few of our ancestors, Mrs. Henry Knobloch and Mrs. Alma Knox, led by George R. Latham Sr., joined together to form the Oysterponds Historical Society in the mid-1940s. They wanted to preserve our past for the benefit of all our descendants. 

In 1951 George Latham Sr. had an opportunity to purchase what has come to be known as the Slave Burying Ground on behalf of OHS from the Douglass family, who had inherited it from the Tuthill family. Mr. Latham was desperate to save this piece of history from the bulldozer, as had occurred to the King Cemetery at Major’s Pond, where graves and stones were pushed into oblivion in a move toward development. There are some in Orient who believe no one is buried there and OHS put up the sign and mowed the grass as a tourist attraction. This is decidedly not the case.


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As any casual observer can see there were very few buried there other than the Tuthills, as slavery was never much of an issue in Orient. Farms were too small and folks were too poor. They did all the work themselves. No plantations here. In 1824 there were but 11 slaves in all of Southold Town. In 1799 all former slaves were deemed to be “indentured servants” until 1827, when all were free. So it is quite likely that the information on the cemetery sign is, in fact, quite correct. 

Those working for the Tuthills after 1799 were servants and not slaves. Maria and Seth Tuthill died in 1840 and 1850, respectively, and they chose to lie for eternity with those who had served them and worked with them during their lives. Certainly a progressive and unique thought in that era.

Lest anyone think otherwise, let us be perfectly clear: We must acknowledge that whatever the status of those buried there, whether they be deemed “slaves” or “servants” or both, they or their ancestors lived unwillingly in bondage after brutal capture, horrific ocean crossings and humiliating slave auctions.

The sign to commemorate all this was written by George R. Latham Sr., the sign was paid for by his brother Alex Latham and installed by George’s grandsons. George was quite an accomplished amateur historian so we can be pretty sure he did careful research and chose his words well.

So imagine the surprise and shock when on the evening of June 11, when the grandson of all these Lathams, Jim, on his way home as dusk was about to turn to dark, finds three people removing this memorial sign. He and another Orienter, Cy Lukeman, queried what was going on and were told that several people had objected to the language on the sign, specifically to the word “servants” in reference to people who, some thought, were slaves. 

None of the three were officially connected to OHS but claimed to have been authorized by the executive director. When informed later that evening, the president of OHS stated that he knew nothing of this removal and had not authorized it. It was later discovered that not only had the president not been consulted, but the buildings and grounds committee had not been consulted. The Board of Trustees was also unaware of this action. The executive director had acted on her own. The OHS president has confirmed on several occasions to the writers that the executive director had acted on her own authority.

Several days later the board apparently met by telephone and a majority voted retroactively to have the sign removed pending investigation of the information on the sign. In a ”Message to The Community” on June 12, the impression was given that the removal was authorized in advance by the board and the president. This is not true. Certainly by any policy of governance the board and president should have admonished the executive director and ordered the sign promptly reinstalled until such time as the accuracy of the information on the sign could be ascertained.

But the board chose not to do this. Instead they circumvented the proper links in the process and decided, a few days later, to double down and launch an ill-defined and amorphous “investigation” into slavery in Orient, indentured servitude and the labor camps of the 1940s and early 50s. To research all these issues is certainly within their purview, and long overdue, but hardly relevant to the cemetery and the sign. 

We are angered, frustrated, dismayed and mostly disappointed in OHS, not only for removing the sign but in the arrogant and clumsy way they have handled this situation since the removal. They have widened the divide, largely of their own creation, between the broader Orient community and OHS. OHS has yet to release a comprehensive narrative of the reasons for the sign removal, not to mention the deliberations (if any) that led up to it. The cemetery has been owned and sparsely maintained by OHS for some 70 years, in which time one would think they’d had ample time to determine who was buried there and the veracity of the sign. So why now? And why was it necessary to act first and investigate later?

The Oysterponds Historical Society is a public, tax-advantaged entity and as such has an obligation to be open and transparent and not to alienate and divide the people of the broader Orient community. To many, the society has become an organization devoted to art shows and cocktail parties that are way beyond the means of many rather than to the preservation of our communal history. 

Before there can be any thought of reconciliation there must first be public admission of mistakes made. There needs to be a truthful explanation of what happened and why. There needs to be a public apology. Even after repeated entreaties over the last three weeks by the writers and many others, the OHS president has adamantly refused to offer any apology. There also needs to be a new commitment to transparency in the future in recognition of OHS’s responsibility as a public, tax-advantaged entity.

The historical sign about the Slave Cemetery must be recovered from storage and returned to its place at the entrance to the cemetery. This action will go a long way toward convincing us that there is opportunity for reconciliation between the society and the community. We hope that the society will give at least as much credence to the more than 125 Orienters who have signed this letter as to the very few who apparently objected to the sign.

Mr. Latham, Mr. Webb and Mr. Leslie have deep roots in Orient. They say more than 100 people are in support of this letter.

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