South Campus garden memorializes former Poorhouse residents

Participants at the ceremony memorializing former residents of the Erie County Poorhouse.

Provost Charles Zukoski delivers remarks at Monday’s South Campus Memorial Garden dedication.

The memorial garden is part of a respectful process guided by UB researchers and a team of community partners

Release Date: November 27, 2018

Doug Perrelli and Joyce Sirianni.

Doug Perrelli and Joyce Sirianni

“I like to think these people regained their dignity through our process of finding them, bringing them back to the surface, and recognizing the need for memorials both [on the South Campus] and their place of final burial [at Assumption Cemetery]. It is through this process and the sharing of the information gained that they retain their place in our society."
Douglas Perrelli, director, Archaeological Survey
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The University at Buffalo officially dedicated a memorial garden yesterday to honor those who died in the care of the former Erie County Poorhouse and were buried on land that is today part of UB’s South Campus.

Charles F. Zukoski, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, and Laura Hubbard, vice president for finance and administration, presided over and delivered remarks along with Douglas Perrelli, clinical assistant professor of anthropology and director of UB’s nonprofit Archaeological Survey, at the garden’s site, immediately west of Clark Hall and accessible by way of Rotary Road. 

“This garden is built and dedicated to the memory of those who found refuge at the poorhouse, those who helped build our community,” said Zukoski. “It’s a place to contemplate family and society and the historical changes that were taking place in Erie County at that time.”

“This is a day to remember those who lived and died at the Erie County Poorhouse. We remember as well those within the university and our community partners who worked so hard to make this garden a reality,” said Hubbard. “But today we do more than remember, we create a place to remember.”

The garden’s creation and installation represent another step in a respectful process involving university researchers and a team of dedicated community partners that began a decade ago when several hundred unmarked graves were uncovered during construction projects on the periphery of the campus along Bailey Avenue in Buffalo.

The university held a non-denominational ceremony and service in October 2017 to reinter 372 individuals to a permanent resting place on hallowed ground at Assumption Cemetery on Grand Island. Assumption will also serve as a future reinternment site should other remains be discovered in that area of the campus.

Perrelli and Joyce E. Sirianni, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Anthropology, served as co-directors of the process and said they are humbled and grateful for the reception it has received in the local community.

“We tried hard to identify the people in the former poorhouse cemetery. This was not possible, but we did succeed in providing Western New York with a group identity for these once forgotten people. This ceremony is proof of that,” said Perrelli. “I like to think these people regained their dignity through our process of finding them, bringing them back to the surface, and recognizing the need for memorials both [on the South Campus] and their place of final burial [at Assumption Cemetery]. It is through this process and the sharing of the information gained that they retain their place in our society."

“This serves as a way to remember those who had been previously forgotten,” Sirianni noted prior to the event. “Just as we remember those who have been reinterred, we must also remember those who remain on the grounds marked by this memorial.”

Perrelli and Sirianni, along with Melanie Mayberry and Rosanne Higgins, both adjunct faculty members in UB’s anthropology department, worked tirelessly for years trying to tie names from Erie County Poorhouse records to the uncovered physical remains. That goal proved unattainable, complicated by many factors, including the inadequacies of the poorhouse’s recordkeeping, which made it impossible to associate names with burial locations.

But the UB researchers were still able to restore the dignity and individuality of the deceased.

“We’re able now to tell their stories,” said Mayberry before the ceremony

Collectively, their work, substantiated by archaeology and biology, and firmly situated in a specific historical context, gives voice to what for decades had been an untold narrative about the Erie County Poorhouse and the people it served.

“We had the Department of Anthropology with biological anthropologists who could identify the remains; we had an excellent archaeology and recovery unit; and then there’s the history,” said Sirianni. “It’s the history we were steeped in every time we looked at an individual who passed through the poorhouse, the hospital and was buried in the cemetery.”

The Erie County Poorhouse, an often unnoticed aspect of Buffalo’s past, contributes to a better understanding of the community’s place on the 19th-century world stage, according to Higgins, who provided historical expertise on the project.

The Erie County Poorhouse offered temporary aid to thousands of ordinary people who contributed to Buffalo’s growth. These early builders and contributors to the community lived and worked in Western New York until some event robbed them of their ability to earn a living. The South Campus memorial garden completes the stories that began when poorhouse administrators first wrote what had become forgotten names in the institution’s ledger books.

“These people were the brick layers, the stone masons, the carpenters, the scoopers, the grocers, the laundresses and the seamstresses who built our city and kept its citizens clothed and fed,” said Higgins.

“The city could not have functioned without people like them and it is important to remember them as key figures in Buffalo’s history.”

The landscaped garden is enclosed by a circular walkway with a roughly six-foot monument of American black granite that is seated on a base of the same material and flanked by park benches on each side.  The inscription reads:

The land surrounding this monument formerly served as the burial grounds for those who died while in the care of the Erie County Poorhouse (1851-1913). Some of the deceased have been respectfully reinterred to a permanent resting place at Assumption Cemetery on Grand Island, New York. Others remain in the unmarked graves in which they were buried. Though the names of those men, women and children are lost as part of an unrecorded history, the spirit of their identity and the dignity of their memory will be forever honored.

In addition to the work of Perrelli, Sirianni, Mayberry and Higgins, other UB participants include James Hartner, senior research support specialist for UB’s Archaeological Survey, Peter Biehl, chair of the anthropology department; Jennifer Byrnes, Kevin Knowles and Jennifer Odien, all of whom received PhDs in anthropology from UB based on research from the project; UB graduate students Erin Chapman and Kimberly Hanzlian; Jennifer Liber Raines, a volunteer who was instrumental in obtaining information on the poorhouse and its cemetery; Dan Vivian, assistant vice president for procurement; and Rev. Msgr. J. Patrick Keleher, director and campus minister for the UB Newman Center.

Expertise and invaluable assistance was also provided from members of the Erie Niagara Funeral Directors Association (ENFDA), including Gerald Gentile, the organization’s president-elect; Gabriel Johnson, secretary-treasurer; John Latimore; board members John Kaczor and Fred Hamp; and past presidents Larry Ginnane and Michael Cushman.

In addition to those from the ENFDA, Tom Koch, Stone Art Memorial; Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Buffalo and its representatives Carmen Colao, director of Catholic Cemeteries, and Frank Enders, supervisor of grounds; Richard Wedekindt, retired funeral director; the Wilbert Vault Company; and the New York State Division of Cemeteries, also provided assistance.

“This is a huge community effort and it would not have come to an elegant conclusion without the help of these partners,” said Perrelli before the event.

Perrelli and Sirianni say they’re prepared to assist other communities and universities that, through development and infrastructure improvements, are likely to make discoveries similar to UB’s.

“Every county in every state in North America had a poorhouse, and every single one of those poorhouses had a potter’s field,” said Perrelli. “How many houses are built on those sites? How many hospitals, colleges and public parks?  Each of these unmarked cemeteries might have as many as 5,000 people.

“When someone does make such a discovery they should contact UB,” he said. “We would be willing to consult and spread the knowledge we’ve gained so that this process can be easier for others.”

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