The search for a photograph of a slave who died at somewhere between 111 and 114 years old and was buried at Maple Grove Cemetery 125 years ago has led to a unique Juneteenth community project between historians and students from a nearby college prep school in Forest Hills.
Carl Ballenas, the president of Friends of Maple Grove, a nonprofit preserving the Kew Gardens cemetery’s history, and Helen Day, a genealogist and senior vice president of FMG, learned about former slave Millie Tunnell and her unmarked grave nearly 16 years ago after the formation of their organization on Nov. 30, 2005.
Since then, they have read several newspaper clippings, gone through U.S. Census data and used Maple Grove Cemetery’s historical archives on and off for 15 years to piece together the story of Tunnell’s life.
“The Friends of Maple Grove was created 15 years ago by Maple Grove Cemetery, a historic cemetery, to increase public awareness of the cemetery and its rich history,” said Ballenas. “Our historical database is filled with thousands of names of people of a bygone era and we speak their names and tell their story, so they will never be forgotten.”
The FMG database has the names of approximately 115,000 people who are buried at the cemetery, according to Ballenas.
Day finished compiling research in March 2021 and was able to conclude Tunnell was a slave for approximately 70 years and was born into it at Accomack County, Va., around March 10, 1781 to 1785 before dying in 1896.
Tunnell was able to afford three burial plots for nine people at the South Border of Maple Grove, but she did not have enough money for a tombstone, hence why her grave is unmarked.
Before the centenarian died, she recounted meeting President George Washington, her love of smoking from a corn pipe and showed off her threading skills when she was 109 years old.
When the Increase Carpenter Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization for descendants of revolutionaries, learned about Tunnell and FMG’s efforts to give her a bronze memorial, the organization donated $600 towards a plaque.
Despite Day and Ballenas’ efforts over the years, no photo of Tunnell was ever found.
Ballenas, however, saw that roadblock as a teachable moment to share Millie’s story by reaching out to area schools about the project to memorialize and getting them to draw a dignified version of the woman, who was said to be proud and loving.
Narges Anvar, an art teacher of the Kew-Forest School, immediately liked the idea and brought her high school students in on the project, according to Ballenas.
“Art students at The Kew-Forest School truly understood the importance of this project as they started researching and discovering the long and courageous life of Millie Tunnell, a freed slave, loving mother, devoted wife, and a strong and healthy woman,” said Anvar. “What made this a challenging project was that no images of Millie Tunnell existed, so the students took great care in representing her with respect in order to honor her legacy.
“Thanks to The Friends at Maple Grove, in particular Carl Ballenas, we’re honored to have been a part of designing Millie Tunnell’s plaque.”
Student Annie Vaca’s illustration was chosen and text by her and her classmates was engraved on Millie’s memorial, which pieced her life together.
Thirty years before the Civil War, which started in 1861, Millie was married to a slave from another plantation named Merrick Ewell and together they had nine children.
When the slave master Charles Ewell died, Ewell was liberated, but fear of being in chains again led him to flee the state and thus Millie and their children.
Roughly around 1855, the slave master Henry Tunnell died and left a will setting Tunnell and her children free.
Despite that, members of the slave owner’s family contested the will, forcing Millie and her family to continue to work on the land for five additional years until they could pay off $1,269.
Taking a page from Ewell’s book, Tunnell moved to Jamaica, NY, in 1860. Years later she was reunited with her husband after he was found in a mental asylum and sent back to his family in 1886.
The plaque was delivered to Maple Grove on June 8, and a commemoration of Tunnell and an installation of her memorial will be virtually streamed at 4 p.m. at friendsofmaplegrove.org on June 19. The event will include a lecture and concert.
June 19, also known as Juneteenth, is the anniversary of when the last slaves in the U.S. were freed in 1865, despite President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation coming in 1863.