Calista Cleary was a Joel Barlow High School senior thirty-three years ago when an unmarked burial ground in the woods overlooking the Aspetuck River in Easton caught her attention.
“It piqued my curiosity because it was off a really well-traveled road, but people didn’t know any of the history that went with it,” said Cleary, who works as the Director of the Tri-Co Philly Program at Haverford College in Philadelphia.
Little did Cleary know that her curiosity would open a historical window into race relations in Easton during the early to mid-1800s that would also change her perspective of her hometown.
Cleary would later learn that the burial ground was integrated, the final resting place for African Americans and whites who lived and worked in the 1880s in a neighborhood on the border of Redding and Easton called Little Egypt.
“I grew up in Easton, a predominately white town, so to learn that there was a history of Black people living in my town really made me understand that the way you see the world is not always as it is,” said Cleary, who holds a master’s degree in historic preservation and a Ph.D. in American Studies, both from the University of Pennsylvania.
Cleary won a Barton L. Weller Scholarship during her senior year at Barlow to research the twenty or so graves at the burial ground. Her project titled “Little Egypt: Black History in Three New England Towns,” makes an important contribution not only to Easton’s history, but to the history of African Americans in Connecticut. Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition has a copy in its collection.
The burial ground remains unmarked today on Aquarion Water Company property. Now the town’s cemetery committee is exploring ways to ensure its preservation and maintenance.
Deirdra Preis, a cemetery committee member, said members have been working with former state archaeologist Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni to explore options to designate the burial ground a historic site.
“The cemetery is an important part of our town’s history,” Preis said. “The Easton Cemetery Committee is in the process of examining options for maintaining and preserving it to honor the families buried there and to ensure that future generations can appreciate its significance to our past.”
Bellantoni said the burial ground certainly qualifies to be considered for a state historic designation. It is unique in that some of the fieldstones of African-Americans are inscribed, which is a sign of economic prosperity according to Bellantoni.
“It is one of the few sites that have tombstones,” said Bellantoni, who is now emeritus state archaeologist with the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History at the University of Connecticut. “Many African Americans didn’t receive engraved tombstones because they could not afford it.”
Cleary’s research into 110 years of census data found that Blacks living in Little Egypt worked as farmers, carpenters, iron workers and blacksmiths. Sylvanus Baldwin, who is buried in the graveyard, worked as a basket maker and owned $200 worth of real estate. Diane (Baldwin) Robinson of Redding, a descendant of Sylvanus Baldwin, shared family photographs with Cleary.
The burial ground’s location may have contributed to its obscurity and prevented its expansion. It sits on Aquarian land classified as Class 1 by the state, which means it cannot be developed and interments are not allowed in order to protect and preserve the state’s water resources.
Bridgeport Hydraulic Company originally purchased the land in the early 20th century when they began expanding to develop the Aspetuck and the Saugatuck Reservoirs, said Elizabeth Boyce, a cemetery committee member and curator for the Historical Society of Easton.
“It is reasonably well preserved and that is probably because the forest grew up around it and obscured it from the main road,” Boyce said.
Committee members and Bellantoni toured the burial ground earlier this year with a representative from Aquarion.
“It’s a unique privilege that our stewardship of watershed land plays a role in protecting this historic cultural site,” said Carolyn C. Giampe, Aquarion’s director of sustainability and environmental management.
New interments stopped by the late 19th century because many of the descendants of those buried there moved away to larger towns and cities like Bridgeport for economic reasons, Boyce said.
Thirty-three years after Cleary took interest in the cemetery, people around the country still reach out to her to inquire about Little Egypt.
“The cemetery is significant to the town and state history,” Cleary said.
Boyce said designating the burial ground a historical site might give it additional protection and assist in further study of the Little Egypt community. The cemetery committee plans to meet with First Selectman Bindelglass in December to discuss options for the site. Bindelglass said the town will do all it can do to ensure the burial ground’s preservation and maintenance.
“We are in the process, given the complexities of its location, of finding ways to best educate the public about it and preserve it,” Bindelglass said.
For additional historical context, see Bruce Nelson’s two-part series published in the Courier: