Letter: New Legal Battle Brewing Over Byram Cemetery and Underground Railroad Legacy in Greenwich

Letter submitted by Teresa Vega, 4th great-granddaughter of Anthony Green and Peg (Lyon) Merritt Green, March 4, 2018

As a descendant representing the Lyon-Green- Merritt family, I am announcing that we will be filing a new lawsuit against the Town of Greenwich for gross negligence related to the Byram Cemetery as well as the Stewarts for desecration of the Byram Cemetery. This lawsuit cites the new Connecticut General Statutes, Chapter 952, Section 53a-218 – Interference with a cemetery or burial ground: Class C felony law that went into effect on October 1, 2017.

(a) A person is guilty of interference with a cemetery or burial ground when he, without authorization of the owner of the burial lot, or a lineal descendant of the deceased, or of the municipality, cemetery association or person or authority responsible for the control or management of the cemetery or burial ground:  (1) Intentionally destroys, mutilates, defaces, injures or removes any tomb, monument, gravestone or other structure placed or designed for a memorial of the dead, or any portion or fragment thereof, or any fence, railing, curb or other enclosure for the burial of the dead, in or from any cemetery or burial ground;  or (2) wantonly or maliciously disturbs the contents of any tomb or grave in any cemetery or burial ground. (b) Interference with a cemetery or burial ground is a class C felony and any person found guilty under this section shall be fined not less than five hundred dollars.

As confirmed lineal descendants, we feel that we have protection under this new law and that the section referencing “…any fence, railing, curb, or other enclosure for the burial of the dead…” is applicable to the extensive desecration done to the rock formation by the Stewarts with the full knowledge and approval of the Town. The rock formation serves as an enclosure for the upper part of the Byram Cemetery.

Last October 31st , five of my cousins and I responded to the Stewarts’ lawsuit against the Town. The Stewarts then asked for an extension to “settle” the lawsuit until January 29th, 2018. On January 29th, the Stewarts then filed documents seeking to remove all six of us from their lawsuit against the Town. On March 2, 2018, the Stewarts filed a revised lawsuit again making claims upon the Byram Cemetery.

Because the Town was fully complicit with the Stewarts and the Stewarts’ ongoing pursuit to claim the section of the Byram Cemetery, where the oldest Native – and African-American remains are buried, we are adamant that we will remain silent no more. We seek to sue the Town for the following reasons:

This is the second desecration of the Byram Cemetery because the Town’s deed history paperwork was not in order. The first desecration happened in 1890, as reported in the Port Chester Journal on May 15, 1890 and May 22, 1890.

The Town unilaterally decided to name a subsection of the Byram Cemetery, the Byram “African-American Cemetery,” before they had lawfully acquired the actual land and without the approval of the descendants of the people buried in the Byram Cemetery. This designation solely served to reveal the burial ground of Lyon slaves, freedmen and women and was illustrated in the documentary study funded by the town. As a consequence of the Town’s nomenclature, enacted pre-emptively, unilaterally, and without sanction, the Stewarts are now using this spurious designation as the basis of their case to challenge the town for our historic Byram ancient burial ground which they covet.

The Town approved the desecration of the Byram “African-American Cemetery” by issuing a building permit, granted on 11/12/2013, for the Stewarts to erect a carport and blast the natural and historical rock formation within the confines of the Byram Cemetery parcel (more specifically the ledge between the Lyon Family burial ground and the Byram “African-American Cemetery.”). The Town issued a Cease and
Desist Order in 2014 when it was discovered that the Stewarts did not have permission to re-grade the land of the Byram “African-American Cemetery,” a parcel they do not own or hold in fee simple, whatsoever. The re-grading resulted in the desecration of the cemetery grounds by adding a significant amount of soil and boulders to the property, directly over the burials of the slaves and freedmen and women of the Lyon’s family.

In declaring both the Byram and Lyon Cemeteries abandoned, the Town had to track down descendants of the people buried there. They only tracked down the Euro-American descendants. The Town never looked for the Native- and African-American descendants —many of whom live within 30 minutes of Greenwich.

For the past 4 years, the Town has maintained that a 100-year deed search was going to be done which would establish that no occupant of 11 Byram Dock St. (the current address of the Stewarts) ever owned the easement the Stewarts are claiming to own. As of today, that deed history search remains to be done.

In addition, we, the descendants of Lyon-Green- Merritts, are currently seeking and vetting pro-bono Civil Rights attorneys. We have also notified the Native American Rights Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The ACLU of CT, and Yale University Law School’s Legal Services Organization about this case and the significance of it being the oldest Native- and African-American burial ground in Greenwich dating back to the late 1600s.

It is our intention to invoke the Native American Gravesite Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in seeking to prevent the Stewarts from further desecrating and claiming ownership of our ancestral cemetery.

We are aware of and will pursue the NAGPRA funding available for the necessary Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) that is required before any excavation can be done. We are now in consultation with nationally known archaeologists who are experts in GPR.

Finally, we have already initiated a national media campaign to publicize the plight of The Byram African-American Cemetery, its historical significance as the oldest Native – and African-American cemetery in Greenwich, if not the state of Connecticut. More importantly, the Town has endangered a critical site that ties directly not only to the beginning of the early Native- and African-American presence in Greenwich, but also to Greenwich’s place within the larger Abolitionist Movement in the United States.

The Byram Cemetery is one of 5 Greenwich sites, along with the Thomas Lyon Jr. House, Union Cemetery’s Lot 23, Little Bethel AME Church, and the Green Twachtman House that are all part of Connecticut’s rich Underground Railroad network. Our diverse family history, born and bred in Greenwich, reflects our Native American roots, as the original inhabitants of this land, and both our European and African roots that extend back to the colonial era. Our extended family history is a part of Greenwich history worth saving and worth fighting for every step of the way. Our ancestors demand no less. As
descendants, we will not be complicit in the historical erasure of our ancestors and the legacy they left behind. We ask for your support in saving the Byram Cemetery which includes the Byram African-American Cemetery.

Teresa Vega
4th great-granddaughter of Anthony Green and Peg (Lyon) Merritt Green
March 4, 2018