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Monument cites burials under City Honors

For Elissa Banas, the new monument at City Honors School has been five years in the making. But for those once buried beneath the Buffalo school, it's been far longer.

Representatives from Buffalo Public Schools and Forest Lawn joined Mayor Byron W. Brown on Tuesday in dedicating the monument to memorialize those buried in the potter's field where City Honors now stands.

The potter's field, created in 1832 in anticipation of a cholera epidemic, was used as a common burial ground for the poor, the unknown, those unaffiliated with a church and the victims of epidemics. It contained 8,000 to 10,000 bodies when it closed in 1874.

"When we found the bodies back in 2007, I said, 'We've got to do something,' " said Banas, coordinator of City Honors' International Baccalaureate diploma program. "I really did feel kind of compelled to make sure that it happened."

The bodies were discovered when exploratory shafts were dug in preparation for the $40 million joint schools reconstruction project at City Honors. In spring 2008, LPCiminelli conducted an archaeological dig, and URS Corp. carried it out.

It revealed 609 grave shafts, 51 of which were undisturbed and contained complete skeletons. After being analyzed, the discovered remains were reburied in Forest Lawn.

The inscription on the monument, which resembles a gravestone and is more than six feet tall, says that 8,000 to 10,000 bodies were buried there from 1832 to 1874 and that remains were removed each time the land was disturbed in 1887, 1895, 1912 and 2008.

"We remember and honor the citizens of Buffalo who were buried here and removed, and those that remain. May they all rest in peace," the inscription says.

The mayor, introduced by City Honors Principal Bill Kresse, said: "By us all being here, we say that history matters and every single life matters. I think it is fitting that while the people might be unknown to us, that we remember them, that we honor them and that we dedicate this ground in memory of them."

Board of Education President Louis Petrucci, who graduated from City Honors in 1983, remembers hearing rumors that the school was built on top of a Native American burial ground.

"It turned out they were half true," he said. "It wasn't an Indian burial ground, but it was a burial ground nonetheless."

Students are still curious about it, Kresse said, noting that he gets a lot of questions from students every year about whether the spirits beneath the school are upset.

Kresse tells them two things.

"One, I think if they were upset, they got it out of their system when the building burned down in 1912," he said, getting a few laughs from the nearly 20 people at the ceremony.

"Secondly, I don't think they're upset because the use of the land that we arrived at is a very positive use. This is where children come to learn, to play, to laugh, and I think that if there has to be a use for a burial ground, that's the best one we can think of."

For Banas, history came full circle with Tuesday's dedication.

Her great-great-grandfather, Andrew J. Keller, was on the Common Council from 1895 to 1897, which is when funds were approved for the original City Honors building. Banas and her mother discovered their relative's role in the last year when looking through the Council minutes.

"He would have been here for the opening of it, and it's just kind of serendipity that I'm here and I did nag a bit to make sure that this happened," Banas said.