In 1811, the African Methodist Society in Flushing acquired land on the north side of Liberty Street (later 38th Avenue) just west of Union Street, to establish a church. Erected in 1837, the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church became the nucleus of a historic African American enclave that flourished in downtown Flushing into the mid-20th century.
Part of the Macedonia A.M.E. Church property was used as a burial ground that served the local black community throughout much of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, the small graveyard had fallen into disuse and burials were disturbed during church construction work on at least two occasions. When an extension was added to the church in 1903, burials were uncovered to the east of the existing building; these were reinterred in a corner of the churchyard.
In 1931, church officials removed some 200 bodies from the burial ground at the rear of the church when a new wing was added for a social hall and gym; at the same time, unsuspected burials were encountered during foundation work underneath the church. Church officials planned to transfer the remains from the church property to a plot at Flushing Cemetery; however, the transfer was not permitted because the church did not have proper documentation for the deceased. The remains from the burial ground were subsequently reinterred below the church building.
Little is known about specific individuals who were laid to rest in the Macedonia A.M.E. cemetery since church burial records were lost in the early 20th century. One newspaper, reporting on the 1931 disinterments at the site, said many were “the remains of prominent figures in the history of Flushing’s colored population of the past century.” Still in the collective memory in 1931 was the grave of Jesse Major, whose tombstone, carved in the shape of an open bible, once stood next to the graveyard’s front entrance. “Violets and buttercups grew on Jesse’s grave when they grew on none other,” said members of the congregation who recalled seeing the grave and its flowers around the turn of the century, when “no boy would dare tread on the grave overshadowed by the ‘Good Book.’”
Among the prominent figures likely interred in the Macedonia A.M.E. Cemetery was Rev. Edward C. Africanus, a pastor at Macedonia and a teacher at Flushing’s Colored School. As noted in the Cyclopedia of African Methodism, many considered Africanus “the most talented minister in the New York conference” of the A.M.E. Church. When he died in Flushing in 1853 at age 33, Africanus was described as as one who “towered high as scholar and pulpit orator.”
When the city decided in the 1950s to create a large municipal parking facility in the area surrounding Macedonia A.M.E., the church was allowed to stay at its site largely because its demolition would have further disturbed the human remains interred at the site. Though the church was spared, it became an island in a sea of cars—much of the black community that had surrounded Macedonia since the early 19th century was displaced to make way for the parking field that encircled the church. Still standing at its original location, today Macedonia A.M.E. is the third oldest church in Flushing. The parking facilities surrounding the church are currently being redeveloped into Flushing Commons and Macedonia Plaza.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 70;“Civil Rights of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 15, 1866; “200 Skeletons Unearthed: Remnants of Bodies Buried in Flushing Exhumed to Make Way for Church Building,” North Shore Daily Journal, Sep 12 1931, 1, 5; “Graveyard Under Flushing Church Revealed As Reason for Fight on Parking Lot Project,” Long Island Star-Journal, July 13, 1949, 13; Phase 1A Archaeological Assessment Report for the Flushing Center Project, Queens, New York(Historical Perspectives, Inc., 1988); Cyclopedia of African Methodism (Wayman 1882), 13; History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Payne 1891), 303-304; City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens (Hanson 2016), 55-56, 167-169
In October 2011, construction workers uncovered a human body during the process of redeveloping a 1.4-acre property at Corona Avenue and 90th Street in Elmhurst, Queens. Thought to be a possible crime scene, forensic anthropologists from the Medical Examiner’s Office were called to the site. They determined that the remains were of a young African American woman who died in the early 1850s. Her body had naturally mummified in the iron coffin she was buried in, which had broken open during the excavations. Inquiries confirmed that the property was used as an African American cemetery in the 19th century, and archaeologists subsequently recovered tombstone and coffin fragments from the site, as well as bone fragments representing at least nine other individuals.
The Iron Coffin Lady, as she has been dubbed, was recovered from the site of a cemetery associated with the United African Society of Newtown, later known as St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church. In 1828—a year after the abolition of slavery in New York—a white farmer, William Hunter, and his wife Jane, deeded two acres to the United African Society for the purpose of building a church and parsonage. This property was on the north side of Dutch Lane (later Union Avenue, and now Corona Avenue), between what is now 90th Street and 91st Place. A cemetery was perhaps already in use on the site—some sources say the property had been set aside as a “Negro burial ground” in 1818. Services for black worshippers were offered for nearly 100 years at the church built at the site, but the congregation was continuously torn by struggles between a Presbyterian faction and another preferring the Methodist ritual. In 1907, the United African Society joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church and reemerged as St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church.
Throughout the 19th century, members of Newtown’s earliest African American church were buried in the cemetery on Corona Avenue, which likely also served as a general burial ground for the black community of Newtown Village (today’s Elmhurst). Over 300 burials had been made in the graveyard by 1886, when the church appealed for assistance in enclosing the cemetery and making necessary repairs. The improvements had been made by 1891, when the Newtown Register reported that a “neat fence” surrounded the entire church grounds, and the graves, previously “covered with underbrush and sadly neglected,” were “entirely cleared and neatly fixed over,” presenting “a sightly and pleasing appearance.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described one of the burials made in the restored cemetery:
Fesius Hoff was a negro who lived in the village of Newtown for many years, dying in April 1892. He made his living by doing chores about the village and was universally liked. He lived in a tumbledown, one-story house that many times needed the necessaries of life. But no matter how hard-pressed he was no one ever heard him complain. He took life easy and if he had anything to eat he was glad, and if he had not it was all right. He trusted to luck, and many times it deserted him. To the small boys of the village, Fesius was an oracle. If a question was to be decided, to him the boys went and always abided by his decision. In all matters Fesius was their counselor and guide, and when they grew up they had always a kindly word for the old negro. Friday afternoon, in the burying ground attached to the colored church, where Fesius’s body had been laid to rest, a monument was set up over his grave … The Rev. J.W. Van Zandt, the pastor of the colored church, delivered an oration and prominent citizens made addresses. The little churchyard was crowded and flowers were laid upon his grave…
The Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the “Colored Cemetery” on Corona Avenue in 1919. No inscriptions or locations of graves were recorded during the survey, but information was obtained from Mr. John Ferguson of Brooklyn, “one of the oldest members of the church.” Mr. Ferguson said that no one had kept a record of burials in the cemetery and interments there had ended by the beginning of the 20th century. In 1929, St. Mark’s A.M.E. sold the property at Corona Avenue and moved to a new church at 95th Street and 32nd Avenue in East Elmhurst. Before the move, in April 1928 the New York Amsterdam News reported that St. Mark’s had applied for a permit to remove all the remains from the burial ground at Corona Avenue and reinter them in a plot purchased at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens, but the application had been refused by the city. Mount Olivet’s burial register records the remains of 20 individuals from the Corona Avenue cemetery that were transferred to two graves at Mount Olivet in May 1928. Why only these 20 were moved is unknown. It seems most of the burials at the Corona Avenue burial ground were left in place and built over when the property was sold. By the 1940s, the Peerless Instrument factory and other structures had been built on the site.
The body discovered during construction at the site in 2011 was a 5-foot-3-inch-tall mummified African American woman, buried in an elaborate and expensive Fisk Metallic Burial Case shaped like an Egyptian sarcophagus. Her long hair, falling over her shoulders, was preserved, as were the chemise, shroud, bonnet, and stockings she was wearing. Lesions on her skin suggested she died of smallpox.
After five years of testing, investigation, and research by a diverse team of experts, in 2016 the Iron Coffin Lady was reburied at Mount Olivet Cemetery, where she was laid to rest near the 20 individuals who were reinterred there from the Corona Avenue cemetery in 1928. The discovery of her body in 2011 fascinated scientists and historians and spurred local interest in this forgotten African American burial ground and Newtown’s historic black community. At the 2016 reburial ceremony held at the St. Mark’s A.M.E. successor church located at 95‐18 Northern Boulevard in Queens, the church’s pastor Kimberly Detherage stated, “It was no accident that her body was found…God ordained that we should have another opportunity to know and discover our history and how important our history is to the building of New York and this nation as African Americans.”
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 YorkAmsterdam 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
In 2014 the gravestone of Wilson Rantus, a prominent African American figure in pre-Civil War Queens, mysteriously turned up in the backyard of a Queens College professor’s home. How or why the 153-year-old marble tombstone ended up in the professor’s yard near the college’s Flushing campus was never ascertained, but it is known that it originally stood in the Rantus Family Cemetery that was nearby. In 1853, Troy Rantus established a burial ground on the family farm that was located in a community called “Head of Vleigh,” just south of today’s Queens College. The cemetery was actively used by the descendants of Troy Rantus into the early 20th century, and was referred to by a number of names including “The Burying Ground of the Family of Troy Rantus the First,” “Troytown Cemetery,” and “The Colored Burying Ground of South Flushing.” The last known burial in the cemetery was in 1911, when James A. Brooks, a 37-year old Queens mail carrier and son of Sarah Rantus, was interred there.
Although records show the family burial ground was the final resting place of at least a dozen members of the Rantus family, when the Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the cemetery in 1919 only two headstones were present—those of Wilson Rantus (d. 1861) and James Rantus (d. 1903). Wilson Rantus was an educated African American farmer and activist who had large landholdings in both Flushing and Jamaica, Queens, in the mid-1800s. He took part in the struggle for equal voting rights in New York State, fought for educational rights for black children, and was a financial backer of Thomas Hamilton’s Anglo-African magazine and newspaper. The inscription on his gravestone was partially transcribed in 1919:
WILSON RANTUSDied May 13, 1861Aged 55 yearsJesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosomFly, while the raging billows roll…O, receive my soul at last
In 1952, a home building company obtained permission from the Rantus heirs to remove the bodies from the family cemetery so the company could have clear title to develop the land. At that time, no gravestones remained in the 52-by-84-foot plot, which was described as a “a long-forgotten Negro burial ground” at the southwest corner of 149th street and Gravett Road. The company reportedly removed the human remains “with care and respect” and transferred them to a plot in the Terrace Hill section at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. The Mainstay Cooperative Apartments now stand on the former site of the Rantus Family Cemetery.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 57; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 164; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 60-61; “New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, James A. Brooks, 10 Jun 1911; “Builders Seek to Remove Bodies from Burial Ground in Flushing,” Long Island Star-Journal, Oct 24, 1952, 26; “Wilson Rantus, Negro Leader,” Long Island Forum 25(7) July 1962, 143-144; African-American Leaders in Pre-Civil War Queens (Queens Public Library 2008), 12-15; “Queens College Professor Discovers Tombstone of Abolitionist,” New York Daily News, Jun 9, 2014; “Tombstone of 19th century Queens Abolitionist Will Be Placed at His Burial Site, New York Daily News, Jun 11, 2014; “Historic Headstone of 19th Century Abolitionist Will Be Reviewed by Conservationist at Evergreens Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Jun 12, 2014; NYCityMap
In the early 20th century, development was spreading up to the last rural area left on Manhattan—Inwood, at the island’s northern tip. Workers began to raze Inwood’s old farmlands and estates and grade the land to lay out streets. In 1903, sensational reports appeared in city newspapers describing a burial ground that street graders had unearthed near 10th Avenue and 212th Street. The reports said that “huge skeletons” with “iron balls and chains hanging from their limbs,” some buried in an upright position, had been found in a grove of trees on top of a knoll that rose 12 feet above 10th Avenue. Neighborhood residents said it was well known that the knoll was an old burying ground for the slaves of local families who had estates nearby. Representatives of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society and the American Museum of Natural History investigated the cemetery and, although they discovered the stories of upright burials and iron chains and balls were false, they confirmed that the human remains were “Negro” and agreed the site was a burial ground for the enslaved. The African burial ground was thought to be an extension of a colonial cemetery located across 10th Avenue, where the Dyckmans, Nagels, and other early settlers of northern Manhattan were buried.
Before emancipation in 1827, slave labor played an important role in the economy of most of the rural areas around New York City, particularly the Dutch American farms and estates like those of Inwood. In the 1700s, about 40% of the households in the rural parts of Manhattan Island included slaves. Most of these homes had two or three slaves, women working as household help and men as farm labor. Unlike in the plantation South, most of the enslaved men, women and children of New York did not reside in separate quarters, but instead lived under the same roofs as their owners, often sleeping in cellars or attics. Slaves were frequently buried in separate graveyards near the family burial grounds.
The African burial ground in Inwood included 36 graves arranged in rows, each marked by an uncut stone at its head, which was oriented to the west. Investigators found pieces of decayed wood and rusty nails—all that remained of the coffins—and brass pins, suggesting that the dead had been buried in shrouds. In one of the graves a child’s skeleton was found with a little bead necklace. Preservationists attempted to safeguard the human remains unearthed from the burial ground and give them a decent reburial, but apparently were not successful. The remains were treated with what we now consider shocking callousness—one newspaper photo shows the bones heaped in a pile near the site—and most were carried off by relic hunters. Today the former African burial ground site is located just beneath the elevated 1 train tracks, and is occupied by an auto parts store, parking facility and other structures. Writing about the site in 1924, Reginald Pelham Bolton observed:
The remains of these humble workers of the past reminds us of the time when, even in this neighborhood, the practice of slavery was customary. Perhaps no other relic of the past could more decidedly mark the difference between the past and the present than the bones of these poor unwilling immigrants, whose labors cleared the primeval forest, cultivated the unturned sods, and prepared the way for the civilization that followed…
Sources: Touring Gotham’s Archaeological Past (Wall & Cantwell 2004), 32, 98-99; Historical map of the east side of upper Manhattan Isld., from Dyckman St. to Kingsbridge (Bolton 1912); Washington Heights, Manhattan, Its Eventful Past (Bolton 1924), 204; “Skeletons in Irons Dug Up in Street,” Evening World March 14, 1903, 4; “Workmen Find Skeletons in Heavy Chains,” Evening Telegram March 14, 1903, 16; “Big Skeletons in the Bronx,” New York Times March 15, 1903; “Two Ancient Burying Grounds of New-York City, New York Daily Tribune Apr 12, 1903.