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Puritan era burial ground in Roxbury comes back to life

Yawu Miller | 8/15/2012, 7:28 a.m.
Roxbury Highlands Historical Society President Thomas Plant examines colonial history in the Eliot Burying Ground. HBI, which has its headquarters next door to the cemetery, is hoping to make the burial ground open to the public soon. Yawu Miller

In later years the burial ground survived the enlargement of Washington and Eustis Streets, the construction of an adjacent factory and firehouse and then the roar of overhead trains on the elevated Orange Line.

The stone wall and cast-iron fencing encircling the burial ground helped suppress foot traffic and vandalism over the following decades.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when blacks began moving to Roxbury from Beacon Hill, they brought with them a respect for the colonial history of Roxbury, according to Rushing.

“When black people moved here, they brought this sense of taking over the history of the neighborhood,” Rushing said.

While the burial ground stands as the oldest remnant of the city’s Puritan past, in nearby Eliot Square, the Dillaway-Thomas House, home to John Thomas, an American commander in George Washington’s Continental Army, became the centerpiece of the federally designated Roxbury Heritage State Park through Rushing’s efforts.

On the other side of Roxbury, off Dudley Street, the Shirley-Eustis House, which was built between 1747 and 1751, by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor William Shirley, stands as one of just four remaining colonial era governor’s mansions in the United States. In 1991, the house opened to the public as a national historic landmark.

HBI executive director Kathy Kottaridis said she hopes to open the burial ground to the public in the near future. The nonprofit is in talks with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department about managing access to the cemetery during weekdays.

Rushing advocates keeping the burial ground open to the public on a daily basis, but said HBI should always have a pair of eyes on the cemetery.

“People should always be able to get into the cemetery, but you want to cut down on vandalism as much as possible,” he said.