ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Reclaiming history can take a lot of patience and delicate work, and as one local historian can tell you, sometimes it takes a bit of magic.
A fractured headstone lifted from the dirt is part of early Albany African-American history, and up until now, it had been buried along with its much-esteemed owner, Reverend Nathaniel Paul.
Nathaniel Paul is believed to have been the first black minister in Albany. He was the spiritual leader of the African Baptist Church, which sat on a portion of Hamilton Street that is now under the Empire State Plaza.
He is best known for delivering a stirring speech when slavery was abolished in New York in 1827.
“He’s a very significant early abolitionist figure. His story really hasn’t been told as fully as it should,” said Paula Lemire, an historian and founding member of the Friends of Albany Rural Cemetery.
Lemire has also been obsessed with finding Reverend Paul’s final resting place.
“I knew he was in this lot, but I could not find his headstone.”
She knew Reverend Paul died in 1839 and was buried in what would become Washington Park. During the park’s construction, family members brought his remains and headstone to Albany Rural Cemetery.
But, over the decades, his headstone and his legacy began to fade away.
“I had been looking for him for three years. I had tried dowsing rods, finally.”
Lemire said the dowsing rods, much like the ones her grandmother had once used to find missing objects in her yard, led her straight to the gravesite. Her friend Christopher White, a genealogist, and gravestone conservator helped to peel back the sod.
“And we saw the name slowly appearing. I am not going to lie. I was doing the Snoopy happy dance in my head,” Lemire said.
“This stone has been laid flat since 1869. It’s been a long time. 150 years,” White said.
White and other volunteers are now working to restore the 7 ft., 800-pound headstone and setting it upright. In doing so, they are now also helping to reclaim Nathaniel Paul’s rightful place in Albany history.