Burial Vaults Inspire a Celebration of a Church Opposed to Slavery

The remains as they were found in 2006. Further investigation uncovered four 19th-century burial vaults under a parking lot. Credit David Pultz
The remains as they were found in 2006. Further investigation uncovered four 19th-century burial vaults under a parking lot. Credit David Pultz

In the fall of 2007, some New Yorkers vowed that the Trump SoHo tower would be built only over their dead bodies.

Rudolphus Bogert and Louisa Hunter were not among them.

It’s not that they were in favor of the project. It’s just that their dead bodies, and those of about 190 other members of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church, had been removed from the construction site a few months earlier, in an emergency recovery effort by archaeologists after four burial vaults were discovered under an old parking lot.

Miss Hunter, a 16-year-old who died in 1825; Mr. Bogert, a 76-year-old merchant and volunteer fireman who died in 1842; and their fellow congregants were reburied in June at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. A memorial service is to be held Oct. 19 at the imposing First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue, between West 11th and 12th Streets.

“This will be a celebration of the church’s abolitionist stance,” said David Pultz, the archivist at First Presbyterian, who has been involved in the archaeological and reinterment project since January 2007. “The church’s history had been forgotten, like the vaults had been forgotten.”

It is not just that a great window has opened on 19th-century urban life (one-third of the remains were those of children, and half of them suffered from rickets). A link has been forged to New Yorkers who were in the forefront of early battles against slavery.

For its principles, regarded as fanatical, if not demonic in the day, the church was sacked by a mob during citywide riots in 1834.

The Spring Street Presbyterian Church had begun admitting African-Americans into full membership in 1820, while slavery was still legal in New York State, Mr. Pultz said.

The multiracial character of the congregation has generally been corroborated by the remains exhumed from the vaults, said Shannon A. Novak, an associate professor of anthropology at Syracuse University, who studied the remains from 2007 until 2014, working with Thomas Crist of Utica College, Jodi-Lynn Barta of Madonna University in Michigan and Joan Brenner-Coltrain of the University of Utah.

Full emancipation in New York took effect on July 4, 1827. But abolitionists were regarded by many with contempt, fear and hatred. Racial animosity played a big part. So did money. Merchants whose fortunes depended on business with the South were in no hurry to antagonize their trading partners.

Both the Spring Street Church and its offshoot, the Laight Street Presbyterian Church, were targets of the anti-abolition and anti-black mobs that took over city streets in July 1834.

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SOURCE: N.Y. Times

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