Place names memorialize people, things, historical events, or ideas - but what? and for whom? In interacting with places, people also impart their memories and perceptions of those places. The names of those places become associated with people's lived experiences. These associations may be positive, but it may also be negative - and they may not be the same for everyone: while places and place names may carry neutral or positive associations for some, they may be sites of pain and oppression for others. When the names chosen are painful, that pain is imparted into the place as well.
By rededicating this sacred ground without ascribing new labels to it, we can help celebrate the lives of those buried while also recognizing and honoring the diversity of identities, nations, cultures and life histories present. Crucially, we can acknowledge and contextualize the harms of the past without continuing to replicate them. We invite you to join us in this effort.
Place names do much more than simply tell us where we are.
What's in a name?
Section 11 of the Middleburgh Town Cemetery has had several names over the years. Until as late as 2022, official signage still referred to the area using the derogatory term "colored."
The terms "colored," or "Negro" directly invoke the period between the 1870s and 1950s when people throughout America were legally separated by racial categories; a time referred to as the "Jim Crow" period. 'Colored' was used as an umbrella term that was a shorthand for anyone not socially deemed as 'white,' and included Black Americans but also Indigenous peoples, those with mixed parentage, and others with non-European ancestry.
Segregation policies and the racist beliefs that upheld them justified a racial hierarchy in the US, and allowed some of the worst acts of oppression and violence in US history - regardless of where one lived. It is for these reasons that the previous signage labeling the plot is so inadequate and offensive. For example, while many may associate the American South with some of the worst violence against Black Americans, Catholics, and immigrants, fewer people realize that in the 1920s both Binghamton and Buffalo were also regional capitals for the Ku Klux Klan, and locations from which the Klan could spread terror throughout Western NY and the Southern Tier (Rubin 1973; Laats 2012). In Schoharie, Klan activity in the 1930s precipitated a large migration of Black families out of the area (Daniels 1999), including many with family ties to individuals buried at the Middleburgh Cemetery.
The segregated plot of the Middleburgh cemetery was established in the 1880s within this context of segregation and oppression: the same 19th and 20th ce. burial practices segregating people in life also segregated people in death, and were based on imposed racial categories and broader harmful racist ideas.
Previous signboard at cemetery plot. Photo by R. Obbie in 2022
1863 Civil War muster record
The Tale of Abram Petersen
Racial categories can limit people’s humanity, homogenize their identity and impact their life experiences, but often don't reflect the ways that individual people actually think of themselves and their communities - in the present or in the past. In biological terms, racial categories are particularly imprecise; as a socially-defined category, the boundaries of who counted as 'colored' also shifted overtime, further emphasizing their biological arbitrariness. In Schoharie the arbitrariness of racial categories is seen most readily in the case of Abram Petersen, who we think was related to Jeremiah Van Zandt and Marion Petersen - both of whom are buried in the Middleburgh Cemetery.
Born about 1833 to Joseph and Mary Petersen, Abram was officially counted as "Mulatto" in the 1850 census - as was his mother while his father, Joseph, was counted as "Black."
In the 1855 census, however, all three were counted as "Black".
Then, in a 1863 Civil War muster, Abram is listed as "White," working as a mechanic.
The first US Census in 1790 only had 3 racial categories - free whites, all other free persons and slaves (Pew Researcher Center). Other categories were added and taken away based on government needs, public attitudes, and shifting definitions of race. The category "Mulatto" wasn't added until 1850, for example, and a complicated and often changing set of detailed rules limited who was allowed to be called "white" in the census (Pew Research Center). In a society were one's rights and privilege's were connected to one's racial designation, such designations had enormous consequences. For example, from 1821-1870 White and Black residents of NY faced different requirements for voting in NY state: Black voters had to prove residency for three years and own property totaling $250 - the equivalent of about $6712 in 2023 (officialdata.org); White voters only had to show 1 year residency and could be exempted from property requirements for a variety of reasons (New York State Archives). Native Americans weren't counted in the census at all until 1860, but even then enumerators only counted 'assimilated' Indigenous peoples until 1890 (Pew Research Center). Nationwide, Native Americans were effectively barred from voting until 1924 (Library of Congress).
Official records like censuses show how difficult and arbitrary it was to classify people into racialized categories based on perceived racialized characteristics such as skin color that are, in actuality, highly variable. How people defined themselves was not always how the government or society defined them. These records also show how people from diverse backgrounds, like Abram, were able to exploit these social ambiguities in different situations to 'pass' as various categories depending on their context.
The majority of the people buried here for whom we have historical records are of African descent. In the 19th and early 20th century, however (when this plot was used), racist segregation policies prevalent at the time caused all people not socially defined as “white” to be buried together at this plot - separate from the rest of the main Upper Cemetery. These racialized distinctions included African Americans, but also would have included Indigenous peoples and others with non-European ancestry.
The cemetery plot is on the traditional lands of the Muhhekunneuw (Mahican) and Kanien’keha’:ka (Mohawk) nations. According to archaeological, oral and historical records we know that the population of what is now known as the Schoharie Valley has been home to a diverse range of people going back some 9000 years. Given the long and complex Indigenous history of the Schoharie Valley, Indigenous people buried at this plot may have been from a wide range of Native American nations and communities: the Muhhekunneuw and Kanien’keha’:ka nations, but also Onyota’a:ká: (Oneida), Onoñda’gega’ (Onondaga), and others from the Hodinöhsö:ni' (Iroquois) Confederacy; as well as Lenape (Delaware) and others.
An obvious choice for re-labeling the cemetery might have been as an "African-American Ancestral Burial Ground" in recognition of the names and identities we have records for. However, this label risks further erasing the existence of Indigenous peoples and others who might not have thought of themselves as Black or African American - a term with a long history in the US but which was not in common usage prior to the mid-late 20th century. The historical specificity of our social categories means as well that a danger exists of projecting contemporary ideas of identity onto the past. Alternative labels such as 'multicultural' or 'multinational,' might be preferable in their inclusivity and racial non-specificity, but they run the risk of being understood as simply a euphemism for 'non-white.'
Choosing to not name
What the above discussion shows is the difficulty and harm posed by cataloging the world in racialized terms, and in projecting contemporary and discussions of race and identity uncritically into the past. In consultation with Tribal Historic Preservation officers and other heritage professionals, we opted to not relabel the area at all. The people buried here may have been racialized in life and in death; continuing to do so here - regardless of good intentions - does a disservice to those buried and only perpetuates historical harms into the future. Instead, we can do what we have just done here -- speak candidly to offer history and context on how ideas of race structured lived experiences without reducing complicated facets of identity to simplistic racialized categories. In doing so, we hope that visitors can better understand the lives of those buried in a way that celebrates the lives of the deceased while contextualizing and learning from the past.