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Purchase Honors its History Through New Cemetery Plaque

Updated: May 3, 2023

By Daniela Rodriguez


The cemetery behind the Visual Arts and Humanities buildings at Purchase (photo by Daniela Rodriguez)

On a day that seemed nothing out of the ordinary, the campus cemetery, which has been overlooked and ignored for decades, was filled with positive energy, as dozens of people gathered for a common purpose: to celebrate the establishment of a plaque in remembrance of the enslaved people that inhabited the campus.


The event, which took place on Tuesday April 25, was held by the Multicultural Center and the Office of Diversity and Compliance as an attempt to listen to the voices of students, faculty, and staff who had been tirelessly demanding the school to acknowledge the history of the land it was built on.


During the last few years, conversations about the racially charged history of this land have become very common and often powerful. According to a research project carried out by Quincy Campbell, a Film B.F.A senior, the land was owned by Thomas Thomas who, along with his brother John Tomas Jr., owned 13 slaves during the late 1700s and early 1800s. These discussions, resulting from arduous research and work done by members of the Purchase community, have pushed administration to take action towards making the school a more racially equitable place.


"This feels like a defining moment,” said Lisa Miles-Boyce, Title IX Coordinator and Chief Diversity Officer. “This is a sacred moment; one that offers us an opportunity to reflect and hear from our campus community.”


Before guests were told to make their way to the cemetery, people were invited to the Humanities theater, where members of administration– such as President Milly Peña and Miles-Boyce– delivered speeches through which they offered thanks to those involved in the making of the plaqe and the organization of the event and expressed their commitment to acknowledging the history of the campus.


“This is one of the most sacred doings of my presidency,” said President Milly Peña. “Today serves as a reminder, not only to what happened in the past, but to our commitment and responsibility. We want to create opportunities for students to be part of that history.”


Faculty, such as Shaka Mcglotten of the media studies department and Janis Astor of the arts management department, were also given a space to speak.

“We will continue honoring the enslaved people that lived on this land,” said Astor. “Their lives will never again be forgotten or lost.”


After a moment of silence facilitated by Miles-Boyce, guests were invited to walk out and gather around the cemetery. Once they arrived and formed a semicircle around the plaque, attendees were able to see it for the first time.

The new plaque found at the entrance of the cemetery (Photos by Daniela Rodriguez)

Following the big reveal, guests were directed to enter the cemetery and form a big circle to commence the libations ceremony, which were performed by Chief Ayanda Clarke, a renowned Yoruba spiritual leader.


The ritual, which was conducted in both English and Yoruba, was centered around one of the trees in the cemetery and consisted of the pouring of a series of liquids, from water to gin, on it while chanting in order to “purify” it.


“When I saw the email for the event, I didn’t know it would be such a big thing,” said Mekhi Noble, a sophomore violin performance major who attended the event. “I was so happy to see that there was a beautiful ceremony going on.”


At the end, each one of the guests were given a white flower and asked to put it down on the tree and touch it as a way to honor their ancestors.

“We at the Multicultural Center are excited that the history of the campus is being confronted, engaged with, and acknowledged,” said Lizz Elvira, assistant director of the Multicultural Center. “The ceremony is one step of many, an important step, in this crucial conversation.”


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