Dozens gathered at Old Burial Hill on Sunday afternoon for the re-dedication of a very important headstone.
The headstone, carved in African granite and crafted by Dan Cedrone of Marblehead Memorials, belongs to Agnes.
Agnes worked as a slave for the Russell family who lived in Marblehead. She was baptized at St Michael’s Episcopal Church and buried on Old Burial Hill where her headstone remained unmoved from 1718 until it was stolen in the 1970s.
Since the headstone’s theft, community members have been working to replace it.
The Rev. James Bixby is part of a team that has strived to bring Agnes’ story to life. He along with Louis Meyi and Judy Gates of the Marblehead Racial Justice Team, (MRJT for short) as well as various members of Marblehead’s Historical Commission, have worked for the better part of four years to see this project through.
As he addressed the large audience that had gathered at the top of Old Burial Hill, Bixby said, “I want to thank all of you in advance for all of the work that is still yet to come.” He continued, “Agnes was enslaved, and she survived her enslavement, only to have today, acknowledgment.”
Town Historian Don Doliber also spoke at the event. He drew parallels between the burial of Agnes and an unknown mariner whose grave marker lies nearby as the two would have lived during the same time. He ended by saying, “although we turn the pages of history and time, we have to remember there are acts of prejudice and discrimination. We stand here today to recognize that there is hope, there is justice, and there is love.”
The efforts of the many involved points to a new understanding of the town’s history. One that is more transparent and honest, one that tells everyone’s story.
State Representative-elect Jenny Armini, who was familiar with Agnes’ story was also on hand and said, “to have her fully honored like this, is spectacular. It speaks so highly of the community.”
As the services continued, the crowd was led in song by Pastor Bixby, along with Pastor Isaac Garrigues-Cortelyou of St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church. The crowd sang original words written by Cheryl Boots, a former resident of Marblehead and member of the MRJT.
The spiritual entitled “Let the Sun Begin to Shine, Agnes’ song” packed a touching punch. The words (sung from Agnes’ own perspective), slowly spread throughout the crowd as more voices joined in. The lyrics reflected moments of Agnes’ own life. “But then an opened door prepared the way for something more/ Holy water touched my brow, when the sun began to shine.”
Bishop Gayle Harris of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts led the group in prayer before the replica headstone was unveiled, saying a few words about Agnes and her story. She told the story of a woman named Emma who lived through slavery in the south, was impregnated by her enslaver, and how later, she and her children settled in Detroit, where industrial work was plentiful following the onset of the first world war. She paused and said, “I stand here with my great grandmother Emma on my mind.”
Her story hammered home the point that even here in Marblehead, the days of slavery were not more than a few generations behind us, and elsewhere, the days of Jim Crow Laws, even fewer.
Judy Gates of the MRJT said afterward, “I feel like, let’s keep going. Marblehead has a long way to go.”
Harris ended the service by saying, “Be of good courage, lift up the weak. Hold fast to that which is the whole truth, the whole history.”