In 1890 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article about discriminatory burial practices in New York City’s cemeteries. “In this city, except in isolated instances, the color line is strictly drawn at the grave,” the piece asserts. “Although not generally known, even among the proscribed race, the bodies of blacks may not be interred in the same section of certain cemeteries with those of whites.” African Americans often were segregated to the less desirable sections of cemeteries or, in some cases, completely barred from purchasing graves. The situation was “a source of considerable feeling and discontent among colored people,” the Eagle reported. “The utmost dissatisfaction is expressed at it and there is a growing feeling that some steps should be taken to remedy it.” The black community was still struggling with this problem 45 years later when a group of Harlem businessmen created Frederick Douglass Memorial Park in Staten Island to combat segregated burials. The cemetery was open to all—and had an interracial board of directors—but was created and managed by African Americans with the intention of providing a place where the city’s black residents could be buried affordably and with dignity.
Frederick Douglass Memorial Park is situated adjacent to Ocean View Cemetery on Amboy Road in the Oakwood section of Staten Island. Touted as “an ultra-modern cemetery” when it was established in 1935, this new burial ground was planned along the memorial park model that came to dominate cemetery landscape design in the 20th century. Grave markers were generally required to be flat against the ground, thus making lawn care more economical and giving greater emphasis to the park-like setting. The burial park attracted African Americans from Harlem, Brooklyn, and other areas of the city, and by 1949 Frederick Douglass Memorial Park had over 10,000 interments. Its grounds—which began as 53 acres but dwindled to its present 17 acres by the 1960s—became the final resting place of a number of prominent black public figures, including Negro League baseball player Sol White, blues singer Mamie Smith, and jazz trumpeter Tommy Ladnier.
In 1961 the cemetery erected a monument to its namesake, the esteemed abolitionist, orator, and statesman who died in 1895 and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY. The Frederick Douglass cenotaph, located near the cemetery’s entrance, features a bronze bas-relief portrait mounted on an eight-foot-tall granite slab. The $20,000 monument was created by British-born artist Angus McDougall (known for the iconic apple paperweight he designed for the Steuben Glass Company) and was New York City’s first public sculpture to honor Douglass.
Despite its early success, Frederick Douglass Memorial Park has fallen on hard times in recent years. Business slowed as the cemetery ran out of space for new graves, and it now does only a small number of burials each year. Plagued by poor stewardship, financial woes, and disrepair, since 2005 the cemetery has been operated by a series of court-appointed receivers. The current management, along with the non-profit organization Friends of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, is working to reestablish financial stability, restore the grounds, and preserve the heritage of this historic African American cemetery.
Sources: “Where the Color Line Exists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 7 1890; “Frederick Douglass Memorial Park…,” New York Age, June 22 1935; “Frederick Douglass Memorial Park Fills Long-Felt Need,” New York Age, July 30 1949; “Monument Honors Ex-Slave Crusader,” New York Times, May 29 1961; “Monument Dedicated In N.Y.” New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA), Jun 10 1961; “A Place of Dignity Falls on Hard Times, New York Times, Oct 17 2008; “Hard-pressed Staten Island Cemetery Counting on Descendants,” Staten Island Advance, May 14 2009; “A Cemetery Holding Black Bodies is in Disrepair,” New York Amsterdam News, May 11 2017; “In Oakwood, a Troubled Final Resting Place Searches for Help,” Staten Island Advance, Jun 20 2017; Castaways of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, Staten Island, NY (Eric K. Washington); NYCityMap