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)
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).
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.
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.
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