Millie Tunnell’s new headstone will be memorialized on Juneteenth in Maple Grove Cemetery.
The one-of-a-kind plaque honoring Tunnell, who lived in Jamaica and passed away at the age of 111, is the product of a collaboration between The Kew-Forest School and The Friends of Maple Grove.
A group of high school students led by art teacher Narges Anvar worked closely with cemetery historians, Helen Day and Carl Ballenas, to piece together the life story of Tunnell and design a monument that would honor her legacy.
Through diligent research, Day and Ballenas were able to locate her previously unmarked grave using old maps of the cemetery’s layout. They became determined to memorialize Tunnell when they discovered a set of newspaper clippings printed over 125 years ago that provided insight into her life.
After Tunnell had reached her 100th birthday, reporters would write stories on her annually until her passing in 1896. According to those articles, Tunnell had a sharp memory, liked to smoke a corncob pipe and was able to thread a sewing needle without using glasses.
She explained that she was born into slavery in Accomack County, Virginia, on the Tunnell plantation and often recounted the time she met George Washington.
Tunnell married Merrick Ewell from the nearby Ewell plantation and bore nine children. Ewell was freed, and fearing he would be enslaved again he fled to Queens.
When the owner of the Tunnell plantation died in 1855, his will stated that his 19 slaves, including Tunnell and her children, were to be set free.
However, the will was contested, and the court determined that a sum of $1,269 – around $36,000 today – was to be paid by Tunnell before her and her family were allowed to leave. It took her just over five years to gain that freedom.
Despite a trove of historical information, Day and Ballenas couldn’t find any pictures of Tunnell, so they reached out to Anvar, who passed on their work to her students and asked them to create an illustration that would express Tunnell’s “courage, strength and nobility.”
“It was just perfect,” Anvar said in reference to Annie Vaca’s winning design. “It was a whole collaborative process, and I thought this was a great opportunity for students to get involved with something historically significant while learning about the humanitarian impact of art.”
The illustration on Tunnell’s new plaque features a reinterpretation of an old anti-slavery logo. It shows the image of a Black woman now standing up instead of kneeling down, and triumphantly dropping a set of shackles to the floor. There are also nine birds flying off into the distance that represent each member of the Tunnell family buried at Maple Grove Cemetery.
“There’s a bridge here between the past and the present and my aim is to take history and make it alive,” said Ballenas, who’s organized numerous monuments in Maple Grove Cemetery to people that have been overlooked.
“People engage with history in a different way when you explore it through someone’s personal perspective,” he added. “It gets people curious and students want to learn about history all of a sudden because it’s connected with a part of their life.”