Racism is a spiritual crisis—it’s counter to the wholeness of creation, permeating every part of life.

Sarah Townley

Inwood Community Member

Inwood Candlelight Vigil

October 17, 2019

New York, NY

With the highest concentration of Dominican residents in New York City, Inwood is one of Manhattan’s most diverse neighborhoods. More than half of its residents were born outside the United States; churches offer mass in Spanish as well as English. In 2016, the city set plans in motion to rezone the neighborhood, paving the way for luxury high-rise buildings and, with it, displacement of the people who call Inwood home.

 

At the corner of Isham and Broadway, just off the last A Train stop, stands the Church of the Good Shepherd. Its parishioners aren’t linked by faith alone. Called by the social justice needs of Inwood, the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) group assembled, in which parishioners examined neighborhood homelessness, gentrification, and neglected tenants’ rights. JPIC coupled with Altagracia Faith and Justice Works, a community-based organization dedicated to social justice. Members of both were already involved in the resistance to rezoning.

JPIC mirrored the resistance of Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale, a coalition for the protection of their beloved home.

This is our home.

This is our city.

Northern Manhattan Is Not For Sale

As JPIC met and unearthed housing injustices, the connections emerged: histories of oppression and resistance were necessary tools for reclamation. They vowed to reveal the ways in which their local history was inextricably linked to long histories of inequality.

 

To do so, they studied the 400 Years of Inequality Starter Kit.

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Read Together
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Learn Together
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Work as a Team
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Be Place-Based
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The group expanded their research beyond Inwood to look for other instances that limited the sacred rights of burial. The research uncovered these cruel practices were pervasive: stretching from before the revolutionary war and into the 20th century. 

Ignited but uncertain how to proceed, Sarah Townley and Carole Mulligan, members of JPIC, conferred at a local coffee shop. 

 

What was the relationship between the violence of displacement in Inwood to the story of the United States?

 

A neighbor joined their conversation, relaying a forgotten local history: an unmarked burial ground of enslaved Africans was located just a few blocks away. With the help of Nadege Alexis, Sarah and Carole began to research. 

 

Team Inwood unearthed historian Cole Thompson’s “Inwood’s Forgotten Slave Cemetery.” The article details that workmen discovered “row after row of skeletons buried beneath crude stone markers near the present intersection of 212th Street and Tenth Avenue” in 1903.

 

“Contractors busy grading this new extension of Tenth Avenue,” he writes, “wasted no time in obliterating all traces of the site.

Kingsbridge Police Capt. Flood had directed that the old bones be decently reburied, but … the bones... lie in a confused mass in an old soap box near the scene of the work.

The New York Times

March 15, 1903

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The dread of ‘an uprising of blacks’ in 1722 prompted an act providing that all negroes and blacks be buried by daylight. The act was amended afterward so that not more than twelve negroes should attend a funeral. The penalty for the violation of this statute was a public flogging. Furthermore, the slave was to be buried without any outward signs of grief or any ceremonial tokens, such as a pall, gloves or flowers.

The New York Times

April 12, 1903

That evening, Nadema conveyed another crucial, historical transgression: the burial ground marked stolen Lenape land, which spans present-day Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and New Jersey. Amateur archeologists had dug up Lenape artifacts in Inwood. Erasure on top of erasure. If their home was built on more than one violence, they’d need more than one act of contrition—a ceremony as multitudinous as the dishonored.

Manhattan, New York, 1912, by Reginald Pelham Bolton

Paying respects to the dead is a liturgy that transcends religious and cultural lines. Blocks from the very coffee shop in which Sarah and Carole sat, lives had been erased, denied the ceremony of mourning that is emblematic of being human. By observing the crude burial site with community ritual, they could honor the formerly enslaved persons, restoring their place in history.

Remembering them. 

Sarah and Carole spread news of the burial ground to people and organizations in Inwood.

The Dyckman Farmhouse and the Upper Manhattan Interfaith Leaders Coalition agreed to alert their communities to the issue. Nadema Agard, a Cherokee/Lakota/Powhatan artist and longtime Inwood resident, offered her monthly potluck, where many more residents could be reached. 

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We have come together to remember, learn, respect and connect through prayer, song, ritual and truth-telling. We hope to inspire continual conversation and build a unified community.

Lucia Alcantara

Member, JPIC

On the night of October 17, 2019, the air was crisp but not uninviting, a kind of autumn the east coast rarely experiences anymore. A small group gathered at the entrance to Inwood Hill Park at Isham Street and Seaman Ave, the sight of stolen Lenape land.

 

As JPIC member Lucia Alcantara welcomed the group, Brother Anthony Zuba distributed candles. Passersby joined as Lucia spoke, reflecting on the history of the Lenape People who inhabited and were displaced from the Inwood neighborhood. This injustice continued with the unmarked burial ground on 212th Street, where they stood.

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Dana Gae Hanchard led the group in song to the burial site. As they walked, their company grew.

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Located just under the 1 Train, the burial site now constitutes a lot bordered by a chain-link fence, an auto body shop next door.

 

Vigil patrons set a simple table with nine candles on the sidewalk before it, one for each blessing offered. 

Rabbi Guy Austrian of Fort Tyron Jewish Center drew parallels between the site and the Holocaust.

 

The disturbance of a resting place, he said, is a desecration.

Above, the 1 Train raged; he paused to let it pass.

Chinualumogu Akaosa, of holy Nigerian lineage, offered traditional Ibo prayers. Out of respect for the sanctity of these rituals, footage of the prayers are not published here.

 

The Ibo people, Chinua said, have a tradition of upholding ancestors, which predates their shift to modern-day Christianity. He went on:

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The ancestors are close to the creator who we call Chukwu. What I will do today will be in honor of these ancestors who came to the United States.

Chinualumogu Akaosa

Inwood Community Member

After his first ceremonial bell ringing, and a moment of silence Chinua explained that tobacco, which he held in his hands, grows from this land and is sacred to Native People.  

 

Nadema, who was not able to attend the Vigil, offered her prayer in Lakhota entitled “Bless this Spot” from her home nearby. Chinua, entrusted to do so, scattered tobacco leaves at the burial site in her stead. 

 

A bell ringing, a moment of silence.

 

He offered amber, frankincense, and Myrrh which Akaosa explains are sacred biblically and in egyptian culture.

 

He offered his final prayer in Ibo summarizing to attendees in English that this prayer signifies a new day. 

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I want to use these verses to address a new day spiritually, for this America, for this earth, for this planet.

Chinualumogu Akaosa

Inwood Community Member

Chinua stepped back into the crowd, making way for the next ceremony: the candle lighting accompanied by 9 Reflections on Collective Recovery.

I believe in the Sun

even when it is not shining

I believe in Love

even when I cannot feel it

I believe in God

even when He is silent

The eighth reflection on Collective Recovery,

inspired by words written on a cellar wall during the Holocaust

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Following the Vigil, the 60 attendees congregated outside of Good Shepherd’s retreat center, Brother Anthony Zuba gave the final prayer. Inside, participants ate, drank, and recounted the impact of the observance.

 

The center posted nine prompts—one on each of its nine tables—inviting each person to envision a collective future of equality.

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Once we get our house in order, we can hold more space and bring more people into the conversation. 

Sarah Townley

JPIC

The Vigil stayed with parishioners long after October 17. They founded a racial justice group, which has met twice a month since January 2020. They’ve gone on to prepare other observances and embolden Inwood with their organizing.

Carole Mulligan, Lucia Alcantara, Sarah Townley, and Carol Stevens outside San Damiano Retreat Center for a Juneteenth Observance. JPIC banner designed by Eugenia Aledo.

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