The Rev. Kenneth Nelson stood alone in the Pine Hollow Cemetery’s gravel parking lot, his gaze directed at the gravestones a few feet away. The pastor of the Amboy Center United Methodist Church had traveled more than five hours from upstate New York to attend a Nov. 4 ceremony marking the cemetery’s inclusion in the National Registry of Historic Places.
As pastor of the Hood African Methodist Episcopal Zionist Church of Oyster Bay, which owns the cemetery, from 1981 to 2013, Nelson had comforted many people there. Yet the small Oyster Bay graveyard had a personal connection for him, too. Among the many gravestones, which include 11 African-American Civil War veterans, was one for his son, Kenneth Nelson Jr., who died of complications of diabetes four years ago to the day.
Nelson was happy that the cemetery, which was originally called the Pine Hollow Colored Cemetery when churchyards were segregated, had achieved the high honor. It was Nelson who had opened the cemetery to all races and religions while he was pastor. “I can’t remember when that was,” he said. “But I can tell you that there are mostly black people buried there. I only remember two white people buried there, and one was a woman whose maid didn’t know where the woman’s family was, so she had her buried at Pine Hollow.”
The cemetery, on Pine Hollow Road, which dates back to 1884, is dependent on charitable donations for its upkeep.
Its new status was celebrated with the unveiling of a cornerstone at the entrance by Jay Green, a member of Hood African Methodist. People applauded, and then Hood’s gospel chorus performed a few songs including “Oh Freedom,” which seemed fitting to honor the Civil War veterans who had served their country when so many African-Americans were slaves.
Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino was in attendance. “Those who sacrificed for America, a place where they weren’t even allowed to vote, we need to celebrate them,” he said. “It is our job to remind everyone that we are all the same and stand united.”
Hood’s pastor, the Rev. Linda Vanager, had begun working with Denice Evans-Sheppard, a congregant who is now the executive director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society, in February 2014 to complete the nomination paperwork. The process required the deed of the cemetery, which had to be found, and information about the community in 1884.
Once the application was submitted to the National Registry, Vanager waited three years for an answer. She said that the occasion on Nov. 4 was a momentous and happy one.
Nassau County Legislator Josh Lafazan, of Syosset, also attended the ceremony. “I don’t think I’ve been as moved as I was today,” he said. “We stand on hallowed ground here. And we can live in harmony because of the soldiers behind us.”
Then the Hood chorus sang “We Shall Overcome.”