Honoring ‘Once Known’ Graves

Tuesday November 14, 2023

From left, Geordie Vining, Ghlee Woodworth and Ed Balsky survey the newly discovered graves.

NEWBURYPORT – The city is raising money to recognize 18 grave sites in the Old Burying Ground that were recently found by ground-penetrating radar.
The city and the Newburyport Black History Initiative believe the unmarked graves near Auburn Street were those of 18th and 19th century black residents, some of whom may have lived in a nearby neighborhood called Guinea Village.
The plan is to mark these 18 graves with 6-inch by 6-inch by 6-inch granite stones encrypted with the words Once Known. The project will cost approximately $3,200 in private donations.
Local historian Ghlee Woodworth, who with city senior planner Geordie Vining led the search for the unmarked graves, said some have already made tax deductible donations for the project.
“Thank you very much for your continued interest in our Early Black Community Members’ history and their contributions to our community,” Woodworth wrote.
Checks can be made to the City of Newburyport, Newburyport City Hall, c/o Geordie Vining, senior project manager, 60 Pleasant Street, Newburyport, MA 01950.
In an area of the Old Burying Ground cemetery about 75 feet by 75 feet, Ed Balsky, whith Sterling-based GeoSource found the bodies, buried in shallow graves that had no markers. A group of historians, museum leaders and city employees watched as his ground-penetrating radar found one gravesite after another.
“It’s safe to say these are black peoples’ graves,” Woodworth said. “I think we can go out on a limb. Most likely these are unmarked black graves.”
Six graves in the area are marked with headstones. Most of those have been identified to be black residents from their inscriptions and from old records.
Vining, who has been doing and overseeing extensive research on the city’s black residents, said Newburyport was not large enough to have a separate black cemetery like larger cities. And some graves of black residents have been found in other cemeteries.
“This appears to be the black section,” Vining said. “Headstones cost a lot of money. They get buried. They didn’t get a marker. They get forgotten.”
With the new markers city officials and the Newburyport Black History Initiative hope these black residents will not be forgotten.

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