There are 12 African-American Civil War veterans buried in a small, hidden Oyster Bay cemetery. Soldiers from other wars are also buried there, many of whom were white. But it wasn’t always that way.
Sloping up a steep hill, the cemetery ends in a mass of pine trees. At the top of the hill, you can see the red lights of a CVS store across the adjacent Pine Hollow Road, a traffic-plagued roadway. But it’s so quiet at the cemetery that it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that the façade of the chain store might just be an illusion — something that racism has never been.
The cemetery has been owned by the Hood African Methodist Episcopal Zionist Church of Oyster Bay since 1884, a gift from John and Alice Weeks of the Methodist Zion Church. It was originally called the Pine Hollow Colored Cemetery, when cemeteries were segregated. The Rev. Ken Nelson, the pastor at Hood A.M.E. from 1981 to 2013, opened the cemetery to all races and religions, though Denice Evans-Sheppard, the director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society, can’t remember exactly when that happened, or when the name was changed to Pine Hollow Cemetery.
There are a variety of gravestones. Some large ones, indicating wealth, sit next to others that are little more than markers. There are Catholics, Jews and Protestants, common folk next to men of valor, veterans from every war up to Vietnam.
The most well-known person buried in Pine Hollow is Milton A. Williams, who died in 2006. He is the father of Vanessa Williams, the first African-American winner of the Miss America pageant and a well-known entertainer. His presence adds to the quirkiness of the cemetery, where even today there are indications of racism.
As you walk up the hill, there is a section of gravestones surrounded by a low metal railing. They are the graves of the Potter family, descendants of David Carll, a private in the 26th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment in the Civil War. Carll enlisted after President Lincoln approved colored soldiers’ joining the Union Army in 1864. Carll was Evans-Sheppard’s great-great-grandfather. He fought in many battles, and nearly died in Georgia when his regiment was ambushed by a passing confederate train. Only he and a friend survived. He re-enlisted after he recovered from a gunshot wound to his leg and was discharged in 1865.
His parents, Lewis and Catherine, were of Native and African-American descent. When David was 19, he married Mary Louisa Appleford, a white woman from England. It was the first interracial marriage in the Town of Oyster Bay. Carll, who lived in town until he died in 1987, had nine children, many of whom could pass for white.
“The section behind the railing are my descendants who wanted to be thought of as white,” Evans-Sheppard said. “That railing was put up when I was a kid.”
Her great-great-aunt Katherine Carll, who was half black and half white, married Frank Potter, who was black. Their children were all fair. The family is buried in Pine Hollow. The grandchildren put up the barrier.
Years ago, the opportunities were few, Evans-Sheppard said. “Back in the day, people weren’t given good opportunities, and I understand 0they wanted to have better opportunities,” she said.
The wind whipped through the trees, accompanied by the crunching of leaves under foot.
“The further back you go up the hill, the older the plots,” Evans-Sheppard said. Pausing to straighten an American flag at one of the graves, she looked at the small, unmarked stones behind the trees. “Some plots go back to before the church was given the property,” she said. “I think the owners allowed African-Americans to use it to bury their family before the church was given it.”
Evans-Sheppard, whose family came to Oyster Bay in 1795, said she believes the plaques must have fallen off the unmarked stones, which are so much smaller than what is traditionally used today. Gordon Maddox, born in 1903 but now long dead, had overseen the making of the gravestones, creating them free of charge for those who could not afford to pay for one, she said.
The Civil War veterans were part of the community. “This is a community cemetery filled with people who were originally from Oyster Bay, which was required back in the day,” Evans-Sheppard explained. “Like Maddox, if people didn’t have the funds to pay, we all helped each other out.”
“My mom, dad, aunt and godmother are buried here,” said Butch Garrison, a lifelong resident of Oyster Bay. “My friends are here, too. Tomorrow I’m going to put flowers on my mother’s grave.”
Garrison said he was pleased with the new fence and other renovations, including new signage at the entrance of the cemetery, which were completed in June. The church received a $29,000 grant from the county for the upgrade.
Looking over at the gravestones of the Potter family behind the barrier, Evans-Sheppard pointed out her other ancestors, including Carll, that are only a few feet away. “To cut yourself off from family is not a good thing,” she said. “But they can always come back.”
Potter family descendants, she said, “come around even today to see Oyster Bay, but not to see their family. I kind of understand it.”