Evergreens Cemetery

An 1893 photo of the ivy-clad administration building at Evergreens Cemetery, originally built as a chapel

It was still morning, and the quiet of the huge Evergreen Cemetery was broken only by the idling engine of Otis Chance’s big yellow backhoe. The machine was parked at the edge of the cemetery’s Ascension Section, a few yards from Yusef Hawkins’ grave, a few hundred yards from where Michael Griffith, victim of the Howard Beach racial attack, was buried on the day after Christmas in 1986. Otis Chance dug both of those holes in the sandy Queens earth. “I even carried Michael Griffith’s coffin,” he said. “You don’t always know who they’re for, but the foreman told us yesterday this one was for Hawkins,” said Chance, a 34-year-old black man who owns and lives in a house in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section. “It’s a tragedy, a damn shame, nonsense, stupidity,” he said, shaking his head. “It was the same way with Griffith—it didn’t make any sense, what happened. You feel so bad, so sorry for the families.” (Daily News, Aug 31, 1989)

A view of Manhattan from Evergreens Cemetery, Apr 2016

Evergreens Cemetery is a non-denominational burial ground created in 1849 that spans 225 acres along the Brooklyn-Queens border. Prominent landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing designed the grounds, and the results were described as “a perfect rural cemetery” by one 19th-century guide to New York City cemeteries. The wooded landscape includes winding paths traversing an undulating terrain, high points that offer scenic vistas of the Manhattan skyline and Jamaica Bay, and a picturesque Gothic Revival chapel designed by architect Alexander Jackson Davis in 1849/50  (now used as an administration building). 

Celestial Hill, an early Chinese burial ground at Evergreens Cemetery, Mar 2018 (Mary French)

Evergreens is the resting place of over 526,000 people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds; among the notables interred here are dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, jazz musician Lester Young, and world chess champion William Steinitz. Distinctive plots include the Seaman’s Grounds, which hold the remains of more than 1,200 sailors; Celestial Hill, one of the early burial grounds for New York’s Chinese immigrants; and the Actors Fund Plot, where 500 members of the entertainment industry are interred. Also of note is the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Memorial, a haunting monument to several victims of the 1911 Triangle factory fire buried here; the victims’ names, unidentified for a century, were uncovered in 2011 through the persistence of researcher Michael Hirsch and have been added to the memorial.

Yusuf Hawkins’ grave at Evergreens Cemetery, Mar 2018 (Mary French)

The graves of Michael Griffith and Yusuf Hawkins—both victims of late-1980s racial attacks—are in an area of modest graves on the northern side of Evergreens Cemetery. Unlike older sections of the cemetery that are named for pastoral features such as Sylvan Dell, Lake View, and Hickory Knoll, these newer sections are named for biblical themes. In the Redemption section is the burial place of 23-year-old Michael Griffith, killed in 1986 when he was struck by a car as he was chased onto a highway by a group of young white men in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens. Three years later, 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins was laid to rest in the nearby Ascension section after he was shot to death during an attack by a white mob in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The peacefulness of the gravesites of these two young men is a stark contrast to the anguish and civic unrest that followed their deaths, one of the worst periods of racial tension in New York City’s history.

Monument at the center of the Seaman’s Plot, Evergreens Cemetery , Mar 2018 (Mary French)
Location of Evergreens Cemetery Brooklyn-Queens border (OpenStreetMap)

View more photos of Evergreens Cemetery

Sources: The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881); The Eagle and Brooklyn: The Record of the Progress of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle…(Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1893); Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008 (Rousmaniere 2008); The Evergreens Cemetery—The Cultural Landscape Foundation; The Evergreens Cemetery; “When Jack Tar Dies in Port—A Final Resting Place in the Evergreens Cemetery,” New York Times, May 28 1893;  “He’ll Bid Yusef His Last Farewell,” New York Daily News, Aug 31, 1989; “100 Years Later, the Roll of the Dead in a Factory Fire Is Complete,” New York Times, Feb 20, 2011; “The Story Behind HBO’s Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,” Time, Aug 13, 2020; OpenStreetMap

St. Augustine’s Churchyard

An 1860 map of Morrisania shows St. Augustine’s parish complex, at the corner of Jefferson Street and Franklin Avenue. The burial ground was at the north end of the property, near today’s 170th Street.

In 1898, the New York Sun reported on the removal of a small cemetery in the Morrisania section of the Bronx:

Workmen are busy destroying another of Morrisania’s old landmarks, the old graveyard of St. Augustine’s Church. The graveyard was the churchyard of the old church which stood for many years on Jefferson street near Franklin avenue. The graveyard was at the rear of the church and extended back over the line of 170th Street.

Morrisania was one of the quietest of country villages forty years ago, when the first interment was made in the old cemetery. In the ten years that followed many a procession went to the churchyard, until some 250 persons slept under the shadows of the church.

St. Augustine’s Church was founded in 1850 to serve Morrisania’s Catholic community, which developed as Irish and German immigrants came to live in the area. The parish’s first wooden chapel at today’s Jefferson Place and Franklin Avenue was replaced in 1860 by a “handsome and commodious” brick church seating 800 worshippers. The churchyard served as a parish burial ground from 1850 until 1876, when the local Board of Health prohibited further interments there. Interments were also made in vaults beneath the brick church building.

1876 newspaper clipping announcing the prohibition of burials at St. Augustine’s Churchyard.

When St. Augustine’s Church was destroyed by fire in 1894, the parish built their new church a few blocks south, at the intersection of Franklin Avenue and 167th Street. Remains in the vaults beneath the church were removed shortly after the fire in 1894, and reinterred in plots at Woodlawn Cemetery and St. Raymond’s Cemetery. Though the old parish churchyard was long unused and separated from their new house of worship, St. Augustine’s continued to care for the site. At the time of the 1898 removals, The Sun noted that the burial ground was still “green and beautiful” and “visited by some of the older residents of the district.”

Remains removed from St. Augustine’s Churchyard in 1898 were reinterred at St. Raymond’s Cemetery. In 2013, St. Augustine’s Church at Franklin Avenue and 167th Street was demolished and the congregation merged with Our Lady of Victory on Webster Avenue. Today apartment buildings stand at the site of the old St. Augustine’s churchyard site.

2018 aerial view of the former site of St. Augustine’s parish complex; arrow denotes approximate location of the churchyard burial ground (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of the Town of Morrisania (Beers 1860); Bodies in Transit Registers IX & X, Municipal Archives, City of New York; “Church of St. Augustine, Morrisania,” Irish American, Oct 2, 1858; “Dedication of a New Catholic Church,” New York Herald, Oct 3, 1860; “Dedication of St. Augustine’s Church, Morrisania,” Metropolitan Record and New York Vindicator, Oct 6, 1860; “Death of Rev. Stephen Ward,” Metropolitan Record and New York Vindicator, Jul 4, 1863; “No More Burials,” Eastern State Journal (White Plains), Mar 31, 1876; “A Catholic Church Burned,” The Sun, Apr 9, 1894; “St. Augustine’s Graveyard,” The Sun, Oct 30, 1898; “Old Cemetery Blocks Street,” New York Herald, Oct 31, 1898; History of Westchester County, Vol 1 (Scharf 1886); “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1 (1900); Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016)

German Catholic Cemetery, 124th Street

An 1869 notice in the New York Herald announces the removal of remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street

Even as New York’s Catholic population grew from no more than 200 at the end of the Revolutionary era to 400,000 by the mid-19th century, there was but one official cemetery for Manhattan’s Catholics, each closing in turn as it reached capacity. The first was around St. Peter’s in Barclay street, the second at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the third on 11th Street, and, in 1848,  Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Parishes throughout Manhattan were expected to bury their dead in the authorized cemetery and were prohibited by the diocese (archdiocese after 1850) from establishing graveyards adjacent to their churches or elsewhere.

But Manhattan’s early German Catholics were eager to have their own burial places, separate from the Irish that dominated the designated cemetery for the diocese/archdiocese. Several German Catholic parishes established cemeteries, or attempted to do so, and were censured for their defiance and their burial grounds closed. One of these was the Church of St. John the Baptist on 30th Street, whose trustees opened a cemetery on property they acquired in 1848.  State Senator Erastus Brooks provides an account of this cemetery in an 1855 editorial letter:

On 123d and 124th streets, there is a burial ground covering eight lots, belonging to the Church of St. John the Baptist, built on 30th street. The owners were Germans. They built a church and selected a suitable place for the burial of their dead. For some time, without restraint from the Archbishop or others, they were permitted to inter the members of their congregation in these grounds, which were sacred both to the memory of the dead and to their friends. The Archbishop interposed, and prohibited the use of the grounds for this purpose.

The congregation, in a spirit of German independence, continued to bury their dead there, notwithstanding the prohibition of the Archbishop. It was then announced by authority from the pulpit, that burial services would not be permitted there any longer. Still the congregation persisted in exercising their rights as men, and in discharging their duty to the dead. For a time the dead were buried without the usual funeral ceremonies or services. The Archbishop in the exercise of his highhanded power, then took the Priest from the congregation, and, as a consequence, the Church had to be closed, and was closed for some time.

The German Catholic Cemetery depicted on an 1851 map of upper Manhattan. Although it appears here that the cemetery extended over entire block, other sources indicate it was confined to the center of the block, in the area denoted by arrow

An 1851 map of upper Manhattan shows this German Catholic Cemetery and implies that it extended the entire block bounded by 123rd and 124th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues (now Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards). However, other documentary evidence and historical accounts indicate the cemetery was confined to a parcel at the middle of the block (indicated by arrow on the map detail above). No evidence has been found of the number nor names of those interred there.

As noted in Senator Brooks’ letter, the archdiocese interdicted St. John the Baptist for their cemetery, as well as for other disagreements with church authorities, and the parish was consistently troubled until it was reorganized under the control of Capuchin Franciscan friars in 1871. In 1869, the remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street were removed to Calvary Cemetery. The property was subsequently sold to help fund a new church building for the resurrected St. John the Baptist parish; this building still stands at West 30th Street. Apartment buildings are at the former site of the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street.

2018 aerial view of the German Catholic Cemetery site today (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of New-York North of 50th St (Dripps 1851); “Catholic Cemetery and Catholic Burials,” New-York Freemans Journal and Catholic Register, Aug 23, 1851; The Controversy Between Senator Brooks and † John, Archbishop of New York…(Tisdale 1855); “Special Notices,” New York Herald, April 4, 1869; The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Dolan 1975); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); Ennis Francis Houses 1A Documentary Report (Geismar 2010)

Cherry Lane African Church Cemetery

Cherry Lane African Church Cemetery in 1907

In 1893, the Richmond County Advance published the obituary of 70-year-old John Keys, “a colored man of Elm Street, Port Richmond,” encapsulating his epic life story in the following summary: 

Mr. Keys was born a slave in Virginia, and ran away from a hard master, and hid himself in the Dismal Swamp, where he dwelt for a year, food being supplied to him by friends from outside. Learning that his master had sold him to a better man, he came out of the Swamp and entered again into bondage. He went with his new master to Arkansas. Afterward with Mitchell Allen, now of West Brighton, and other colored people, he came to New York to take passage to Liberia. A resident of West Brighton seeing him in the city, suggested Staten Island as a better place to live in than Liberia, and so quite a number of them came to the Island. Mr. Keys was an intelligent man, quite a good carpenter and mason, and was much employed by Capt. Anderson of Port Richmond in jobs about the various buildings which he erected.

The obituary also notes that Keys was interred “in the cemetery in Cherry Lane,” the main burial ground for African Americans on the north shore of Staten Island from the 1850s through the early 20th century. This cemetery, which was situated near the intersection of present-day Forest Avenue (formerly Cherry Lane) and Livermore Avenue, can be traced back to 1850 when the Second Asbury African Methodist Episcopal Church acquired the land. Here they erected a house of worship and established a burial ground for their members. But, lacking a strong membership, the congregation’s small church building soon fell into disrepair and had been destroyed by the time Staten Island historian William T. Davis visited the site in the late 1880s.

An 1859 map shows the Second Asbury AME Church, denoted simply as “African Ch.,” on Cherry Lane

After the church was gone, the property was still used as a cemetery for the local black community. A painted board and broken headstone were the only monuments Davis found during his visit, and he observed that most of the graves were marked by stakes. The board, placed near the road, was inscribed with the names of Aaron Bush, who died in 1889 at age 46, and Augustin Jones, who died in 1873, aged 33. In concluding his description of the site, Davis prophetically remarked: “The existence of these graves will probably soon be forgotten. The painted board cannot last long; the plot is unprotected by a fence, and only a clump of particularly high weeds and tangle mark its site in the rest of the field.” 

Obituary of Benjamin Perine, interred in Cherry Lane Cemetery in 1900.

In the late 1920s, the Second Asbury A.M.E. (existing by that time only as an organization of trustees) transferred the Cherry Lane cemetery to a new corporation, the African Methodist Church Cemetery of Staten Island, Inc. At that time, a list was made of about 40 known individuals interred in the half-acre burial ground. The most well-known of those buried there was Benjamin Perine, reportedly the oldest former slave on Staten Island when he died in 1900. In 1950, the cemetery property was seized by the City of New York for non-payment of taxes, although the church claimed the land should have had tax-exempt status. An out-of-court settlement was reached in 1953, whereby the cemetery property was sold to Sidelle Mann of the Bronx. By late 1950s-early 1960s, a gas station existed at the site; today it is beneath a shopping plaza. 

No one knows for sure what happened to the bodies interred in the Cherry Lane African Church Cemetery. Former borough historian Richard B. Dickenson researched the site in the 1980s-1990s and concluded that some of the bodies may have been removed to Moravian Cemetery or other local burial grounds between the 1920s and 1950s. However, he also discovered there were periodic reports of bones being found on the property when it was redeveloped. Dickenson’s work suggests that it is very likely that remains—of former slaves, freedmen, and members of some of Staten Island’s most prominent black families—may still exist beneath the shopping center.

2018 aerial view of the shopping plaza that covers the site of the Cherry Lane African Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Walling’s 1859 Map of Staten Island; Robinson’s 1907 Atlas of the Borough of RichmondPl 6; Richmond County Conveyances, Vol 20 p438-440, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “Obituary,” Richmond County Advance, Apr 5, 1890; “Obituary,” Richmond County Advance, Apr 8, 1893; “Death of an Old Resident,” Richmond County Advance, Oct 6, 1900; “Homestead Graves,” Proceedings of the Natural Science Association of Staten Island, Special No. 9, 1889; “The Old Slaves Burying Ground and Benjamin Perine,” Afro-American Vital Records and 20th Century Abstracts: Richmond County, Staten Island, 1915 and 1925, New York State Census Records (Dickenson 1985); “Black Burial Grounds a Window to the Past,” Staten Island Advance, Feb 28, 1993; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006); Second Asbury (Zion) African Methodist Episcopoal (AME) Church and Cemetery—History; Second Asbury (Zion) African Methodist Episcopoal (AME) Church and Cemetery—Burials

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery

Detail from an 1874 map of Astoria, arrows denote the original Our Lady of Mount Carmel church and adjoining cemetery at the corner of Van Alst Ave and Trowbridge St (today’s 21st St and 26th Ave) and the new parish church built in 1871 at Newtown Ave and Crescent St

The second Catholic church in Queens was established in the historic township of Newtown in 1841, at the corner of Trowbridge Street (26th Avenue) and Van Alst Avenue (21st Street) in Astoria. Originally known as St. John’s Church, the small wooden edifice was later known as St. Mary’s and, finally, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Vacant land adjoining the church was used as a burial ground for parishioners, mostly Irish immigrants who worked in local silk factories and greenhouses or were employed in the households of wealthy families who had their country homes at Newtown. The church was situated at the heart of Astoria’s Irish enclave, and this Celtic heritage can be seen on historic maps that sometimes identify Van Alst Avenue as Emerald Street.

View of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, 1931 (NYPL)

By 1871, the parish had outgrown their original building and laid the cornerstone for a new church edifice nearby at Newtown Avenue and Crescent Street, where Our Lady of Mount Carmel is now. The old church building was used as a Sunday school and housed the Redemptionist Mission Catholic congregation before it was demolished around the turn of the century.

The old parish cemetery continued to be used into the 1920s, but, for unknown reasons, the title to the cemetery was not transferred to the new church and by the second half of the 20th century its ties to the parish had been forgotten. Without any maintenance, the graveyard became so overgrown that the tombstones were no longer visible. Around this time, people in the neighborhood began to call it the “Famine Cemetery,” referring to the immigrants who came to this country to escape the Irish potato famine. Lacking a formal name for much of its history, old records refer to the site by various names, including St. John’s Cemetery, St. Mary’s Cemetery, and Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Tombstones in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, 1998 (Newsday)

The Diocese of Brooklyn took over maintenance of the site in 1983 and the property’s ownership issues were eventually resolved. Known today as Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, it is intact at the northwest corner of 26th Avenue and 21st Street in Astoria. Inside the 82 x 188-foot site are about 80 tombstones dating from 1844 to 1926, and the names on them are exclusively Irish. “In memory of Patrick Crawley, who departed this life Nov. 5, 1855, a native of County Louth,” reads one memorial. “In memory of John O’Rork, native of the parish of Culmullin, Co. Meath, Ireland,” reads another. Many more graves here are unmarked, and the actual number of interments is unknown since the early burial registers were lost in a fire.

As part of their 175th-anniversary celebrations, on September 15, 2016, Our Lady of Mount Carmel held a mass at their old parish cemetery. With over 100 people in attendance, this “graveyard mass” commemorated church history and honored the lives of its first parishioners.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, June 2010 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of Out Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery

Sources: Map of Long Island City, Queens Co., N.Y. (Dripps 1874); The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); History of the Diocese of Brooklyn, 1853-1950 (Sharp 1954); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens: A Supplement (Queens Topographical Bureau 1975); 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984); The Graveyard of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Astoria, Queens (Fagan 1999); “The Church in Astoria,” Irish American, Mar 13, 1875; “Obituary—Rev. James Phelan,” Irish American, Mar 13, 1880; “Died,” New York Herald, Apr 12, 1892; “Patrick Evers,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Jun 24, 1926; “Old Cemetery in Deplorable State,” Irish Echo, Dec 6, 1975; “Irish-Americans Ask for Restoration of 19th-Century ‘Famine Cemetery’,” Daily News, Aug 19, 1983; “An Emerald Street Far From Home: Irish Famine Cemetery…” Newsday, Mar 17, 1998; “Beyond the Grave: A Restored Famine Cemetery…” Newsday, Mar 17, 2002; “‘Graveyard’ Mass Remembers Astoria’s First Parishioners,” The Tablet, Sep 21, 2016

%d bloggers like this: