African Burial Ground, Harlem

The Harlem African Burial Ground, depicted as the “Cemetery” on marshy land next to the Harlem River on this 1820 farm map

Soon after the Dutch village of New Harlem was established in 1658, its settlers organized a Reformed Dutch Church to meet the community’s religious needs. Meeting informally at first, by 1665 they had raised the funds to construct their first house of worship near the Harlem River, at what is now the corner of 125th Street and First Avenue. In 1667, a plot to the north of the church was established as the community’s first official burial ground, where interments of Harlem’s founders and their descendants were made for many years. In 1686, Harlem’s Reformed Dutch Church relocated to a new building on property just south of their original church and later established a new cemetery at that site. The original cemetery, located at 126th Street and First Avenue, would come to be known as the Negro Burying Ground.

A 1904 depiction of the 17th century village of New Harlem shows the original church and graveyard (later known as the Negro Burying Ground)

The first documented African Americans in New Harlem were slaves purchased in 1664 by the village’s settlers, who used slave labor to work their expansive farms and help build and maintain the settlement. By 1790 a census tally of the Harlem district found 115 slaves working upper Manhattan’s farms and estates, roughly one-third of the population. It is not known when African Americans were first interred at Harlem’s original village burial ground at 126th Street, but at some point the eastern end of the graveyard was designated for that purpose. By 1771 it was formally identified as the “Negro Burying Ground” in historical documents.

An 1802 notice of sale for an adjacent property mentions the Negro Burying Ground at Harlem

After emancipation in 1827, freedmen and women, working their own farms or continuing as servants on Harlem’s estates, created a small African American community centered around Little Zion, an uptown mission established on East 117th Street by downtown’s Mother Zion (the African Methodist Episcopal Church). Blacks also were part of the Harlem Reformed Dutch Church and joined other churches that opened in the area. African Americans of all denominations were buried in the Negro Burying Ground at 126th Street.

A view of the former site of the  first Harlem burying ground/African Burial Ground in 1903, viewed from 127th Street near the Willis Avenue Bridge. At that time the site was part of the Sulzer’s Harlem River Park

Harlem’s original black population diminished as new immigrant groups moved into the area during the second half of the 19th century. Though African Americans would return to Harlem in great numbers in the 20th century, transforming it into a black metropolis, the area’s first black community—and their  burial ground—was largely forgotten. The Negro Burying Ground was supplanted in the 1880s by a pleasure and amusement ground known as Sulzer’s Harlem River Park, then by a movie studio, and, in 1947, by a bus depot.

Detail from a 1914 atlas showing Sulzer’s Harlem River Park, which extended onto the African Burial Ground site from 1885 to 1917

Today, the Harlem African Burial Ground site is located under the southeastern corner of the MTA’s decommissioned 126th Street Bus Depot, which covers the entire block bounded by First and Second Avenues and 126th and 127th Streets. Documentary evidence of the quarter-acre burial ground came to light during planned rehabilitation of the depot, and in 2015 archaeological testing uncovered human remains there. Although no intact burials were found, discovery of a skull and over 100 bones confirmed the site’s history. A task force that includes community members and representatives from Harlem’s Elmendorf Reformed Church, the descendant congregation of Harlem’s original church, was formed to work with the city to redevelop the depot appropriately. Designated the 126th  Street Harlem African Burial Ground Memorial and Mixed-Use Project, future redevelopment plans include a memorial and cultural center to acknowledge the site’s significance.

Aerial view of the 127th Street Bus Depot with the  historic boundaries of the Harlem African Burial Ground indicated (HABG Task Force)

While the exact number buried in Harlem’s African Burial Ground is not known, the task force has been combing through church records to piece together details about the site. Their examination has yielded the names of 40 individuals believed to have been interred there. Historical newspapers offer clues of others laid to rest in Harlem’s African Burial Ground. An 1857 obituary for Charlotte Lewis, a domestic worker, notes her remains were interred in the “burying-ground of the colored” at Harlem. In the New York Times’ 1859 coverage of  the sensational death of Harmon Carnon, “a respectable and industrious colored man” killed by his Cuban son-in-law in a murderous rampage, the “Colored Cemetery at Harlem” is mentioned as Carnon’s burial place. Continued research and memoralization of Harlem’s African Burial Ground will offer an opportunity to honor the lives of those interred there and preserve an essential piece of the city’s history.

Excerpt from a 1859 New York Times article about the murder of Harmon Carnon describes his interment at the Harlem African Burial Ground

Sources:  Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps, No. 67; Bromley’s 1914 Atlas of the City of New York, Pl 13; [Notice], Daily Advertiser Jan 23, 1802; New Harlem Past and Present (Pierce 1903); Revised History of Harlem (Riker 1904); Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 (Wallace 2017), 846; Topic Intensive Documentary Study, Willis Avenue Bridge Reconstruction (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2004); Phase 1B Archaeological Investigation  126th Street Bus Depot (AKRF 2016); “Died,” New York Times,  Jan 31, 1857;“The Escaped Murderer, Sanchez,” New York Times, Jan 13, 1859; “Sulzer’s Harlem River Park,” New York Age, Nov 19, 1927; “Rezoning a Block in Harlem, Respecting an African Burial Ground,” New York Times, Sept 26, 2017; 126th African Burial Ground Memorial & Mixed Use Project  (NYCEDC); Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force

St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery

A view of St. Mary’s of the Assumption Cemetery in 1928 (NYPL)

In 1853, St. Peter’s—the mother church of Staten Island’s Catholics—established a mission to serve the area of the island known then as Northfield. With contributions from Irish and German laborers who worked in the area’s quarries, a piece of land was acquired at what is today Walker Street in Elm Park. Here a two-story frame building, 60×30 feet, was erected as a church and school house for the 40 Catholics who lived in the vicinity at that time, and land next to the church was laid out for a cemetery.

An 1859 map of the historic township of Northfield depicts St. Mary’s Church situated between Port Richmond and Granite Village, at today’s Walker St in Elm Park

The congregation grew to 500 members by 1877 and church authorities designated it as a separate parish—St. Mary’s, Granite Village. By this time the old frame building was no longer adequate, and in 1884 the congregation moved to a new church building at 2230 Richmond Terrace, a mile north of their original church and its adjoining cemetery. Incorporated at their new location as St Mary’s of the Assumption, the parish continued to operate their Walker Street cemetery until 2015, when the church closed and the congregation combined with Our Lady of Mount Carmel in West Brighton. St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery is still an active burial ground, now managed by Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Detail from an 1874 atlas of Port Richmond showing St. Mary’s church and cemetery situated on the south side of Prospect St (today’s Walker St).

Less than an acre in size, St. Mary of Assumption Cemetery is located on the south side of Walker Street, just east of the MLK Expressway in Elm Park. Though the site may have been used for burials beginning in the 1850s when the mission was established at the site, there is little evidence of its early history—the cemetery’s 19th century burial records have been lost, and the tombstones standing today date from the late 1800s to the present. Names on the tombstones reflect the changing demographics of the area—earlier burials are largely Irish, while more recent markers represent the Italian and Polish families who settled on the North Shore in the 20th century.

Obituary for an 1891 interment in St. Mary the Assumption Cemetery

Among the lifelong locals buried at St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery is former city magistrate John Croak. Of Irish ancestry, Croak was born in Elm Park in 1846, received his early education in Staten Island’s public schools and his legal training at Albany Law School, where he was a classmate of U.S. President William McKinley. When Staten Island became part of Greater New York in 1898, Mayor Van Wyck appointed Croak the first city magistrate on Staten Island, an office he held until his retirement in 1920. An active member of St. Mary’s the Assumption parish throughout his life, Croak died at his home on Richmond Terrace in 1930.

A view of tombstones in St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view of St. Mary the Assumption Cemetery (NYCityMap)

View more photos of St. Mary of Assumption Cemetery

Sources: Walling’s 1859 Map of Staten Island; Beers 1874 Atlas of Staten Island, Sec 3; 1878 Sadliers’ Catholic Directory, 115; Annals of Staten Island (Clute 1877), 300; History of Richmond County (Bayles 1887), 433-434; Staten Island and Its People (Leng & Davis 1930-1933), 1:485, 5:287;  Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 152; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 157; Richmond County Cemeteries (NYGenWeb); “Obituary,” Richmond County Advance, Aug 1, 1891, 5; “John Croak Dies at 82,” New York Times, Sep 3, 1930