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Reclaiming Black and Indigenous history in Greenwich’s Byram Cemetery, with the help of state funds

Alex Popp is a Greenwich based volunteer who cleans up the Old Byram Cemetery, a Greenwich burial ground where slaves were buried. The burial site recently received $5,000 to restore the site.
Tony Spinelli
Connecticut Public
Alex Popp is a Greenwich-based volunteer who cleans up the Old Byram Cemetery, a Greenwich burial ground where enslaved people were buried. The burial site recently received $5,000 to restore the site.

The historic Byram Cemetery in Greenwich is getting $5,000 from the state of Connecticut for restoration work, as well as a monument to commemorate the ground where African Americans are buried in unmarked graves.

One of their descendants is Teresa Vega, who believes the struggle to recognize the section of the cemetery will help residents engage more deeply with American history.

“I feel that this cemetery fight is educating people who do not know that some of us have been here for 400 years, actually, a lot of us have been here,” Vega said.

She found out about the cemetery after doing genealogical research and discovering historical records indicating her ancestors were enslaved by a prominent family in the area, which owned the cemetery. Vega ended up creating a website cataloging her findings. It includes detail about a fourth great great grandmother named Peg who was enslaved in Greenwich and later freed in 1800, after the state had passed an emancipation act in 1784.

But many people participated in preservation and recognition efforts of Vega’s ancestors. Caretaker Alex Popp said more work remains to be done in order to preserve the cemetery that had long become overgrown.

Popp said even though the area is now well maintained mostly by volunteers, such as himself and his daughter, he continues to venture out and cut down weeds.

“Greenwich’s Parks and Rec have been very supportive; if I need something done, it's just one call. And they will come down and help me with it,” Popp said.

According to Gov.Ned Lamont’s office, the $5,000 can be used for restoring headstones, installing memorial markers and other restoration work. The money comes from the Neglected Cemetery Account Grant Program which was established by the state in 2014.

Lamont said the money will safeguard local history.

“Cemeteries are sacred places, and maintaining them is essential out of respect for the dead and preserving our local heritage,” Lamont said.

Greenwich is one of 41 towns and cities benefiting from state funding for cemetery maintenance. According to Tyler Fairbairn, the town’s director of community development, $5,000 doesn’t seem like much, but the town probably wouldn’t have been able to do it on its own.

“We set a threshold of the bare minimum being $5,000,” Fairbairn said.

Vega said she worked on language for a marker to acknowledge the history of her family in the cemetery. While there are no memorial services scheduled, she expects to hold a private gathering soon to help honor her Black and Indigenous ancestors.

“That's the history that I want people to understand that across the color line, we're still united,” Vega said.

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