During my early teenage years, my family became good friends with archeologist Paul Huey. He was a graduate student studying archeology at the University of Pennsylvania, who came to our area to teach in my mother’s school, The Helderberg Workshop. I had suggested an archeology course because I’d just read a children’s book on archeology and it sounded fascinating. At first my mother said it would be impossible but before I knew it she’d found Paul and a class in archeology was planned.
We studied maps and walked around the neighborhood looking for old foundations and depressions, approximately where the maps said a house might have been. We were especially interested in finding the Konrad Koontz place because he was a Tory, someone sympathetic to England. We found a foundation that was a beautiful walk down a ridge and along a cow path from our house. Our neighbors gave permission for us to dig in their cattle field. I remember a sleep over in that field, avoiding the cow pies, the ghost stories. My family learned how the people who built our house were related to the family that built the house in the neighbor’s cow pasture. The LaGrange’s were French Huguenots who left France for religious freedom, settled for a time in Holland and then emigrated to New York.
I was only ten, doing sophisticated field archeology. I remember Paul surveying the longitude and latitude of each square and then staking them out with twine and magic marker noting their exact location.I sat in a three by three foot square and scraped at the soil, taking note when it changed colors, and carefully dropping the pottery shards into a paper lunch bag marked with those same coordinates. I scrawled notes, layer by layer.
In the years followed Paul became a close family friend. In some ways he became a member of our family, staying in the room upstairs. It seems to me he stayed there while he excavated Fort Orange, the third oldest fort in North America, about to be covered over by the Route 787, a bypass along the Hudson and feeding over the Dunn Memorial Bridge and back to Delmar. I watched as Paul laid out the old maps of Albany and felt the excitement of research, of finding something the experts had missed. He thanked our family in his Phd Thesis: Aspects of Continuity and Change in Colonial Dutch Material Culture at Fort Orange 1624 – 1664 by saying, “Moreover, the entire project would never have been attempted without the special encouragement of Jean and Robert Pauley and their family, Clayton and Katie.”
I have felt the excitement that the treasure hunt of history can bring. Paul’s research showed me how much information there is about times past—from old maps to fragments of pottery. Because he was alert to landmarks like the Fort Orange hotel, he was able to find the actual site challenging the state which said it was located elsewhere. Paul was able to salvage it before the abutments of the road were built.
I was enthusiastic when invited to be part of the Steele Secrets launch team. (These days authors ask others to help the get the word out about their books. Traditional methods of publicity such as book reviews have dried up. Since there are so many books being published, we try to help each other find readers.)
This young adult novel opens with Mary Steele being transported out of her garden into a cemetery. She smells pipe smoke and meets a ghost, who is as solid as a hug. Soon she is stopping a bulldozer from wrecking the cemetery and finds herself researching who was buried there in order to save it.
In email, on January 30, Steele Secrets author, Andi Cumbo –Floyd wrote, “Every day, I look out the windows of our farmhouse and stare at the cemetery on the hill. Members of the Tucker family are buried there, and in the center of the space, a white marble mausoleum glows, the final resting place of the most famous man to come from our tiny town of Radiant. Dinwiddie Tucker was a professional baseball player for two seasons, and now, he is commemorated with a monument that no one can miss in this community of pastures and small houses.
“I absolutely love living near a cemetery. I know that’s something that many people would not enjoy – the superstition, the mourning, the death that these places symbolize is off-putting to many. But I love cemeteries.
“I love them because they are places of rest, because they are sacred, because they are – unless something is terribly wrong – quiet. I love the stories carved into the stones and those written amongst the way people’s bodies rest near (or far) from one another. I love that the graves face a particular direction because of the beliefs of those who buried their loved ones there. I love that they tell us something of the history of who we are as people, and in my case, as an American.
“It is for much these reasons that my new novel, Steele Secrets, begins and ends in a cemetery. Cemeteries are rich with holiness and strength for me.
“But sadly, I also wrote this book because I see these historic, sacred places being destroyed over and over again. By and large, cemeteries that hold the bodies of ‘white’ people are safe. Like the Tucker cemetery, we know who is buried there; we know whose kin they are. The story is not the same for historic ‘black’ cemeteries.
“For reasons that scar every bit of our American history, the cemeteries of African Americans are often not considered holy or sacrosanct. Instead, highway departments plan to run roadways through them and intend to exhume the bodies without even attempting to consult descendants. Or not-malevolent but under-informed individuals move rows of stones from the edges of fields so that they can have more crop space without realizing that they have just shifted away the only markers for a slave cemetery.
“So in the pages of Steele Secrets, I tried to delve into all the reasons that these blessed resting places are disappearing. (I heard of two African American cemeteries that were under threat this week alone.) I had questions about why this happened, about what this means about racism in 21st century America, about what I – a ‘white’ woman with “black” ancestors – can do about it.
“And in these pages, I found some answers for myself. . . and I hope I found a story that will encourage you to ask questions and find your own answers.” She concludes by saying, “This book is my small way of using my words with a hope of change. . . this is my verbal work of activism.”
Steele Secrets is not only a book about how important it is to preserve history, including that of the most marginalized among us, it is also about how exciting and life-changing research into people’s past lives can be. This young adult novel clearly shows how we must fight for racial justice, but goes about it gently, winning over a skeptical reader. I highly recommend it.
Steele Secrets was released on February 9th several years ago and is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble in print or ebook formats. Charlotte and the Twelve was recently released and the third book in the series, Silence at the Lock will be released early in April.
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