In 1836, members of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the City of New York established a church on property owned by the society on 18th Street, west of 8th Avenue. The church was erected on a site known as the “old Chelsea burying ground,” where, it was said, villagers had long been buried. Shortly after dedicating their new house of worship on 18th Street, the society built a number of burial vaults in the grounds surrounding the church. These were used by church members and residents of the rapidly growing neighborhood of Chelsea, and became a source of considerable income for the church. Approximately 500 bodies were interred in the vaults between 1836 and 1851, when a city ordinance forbade further burials below 86th Street.
The churchyard of the 18th Street Methodist Church consisted of a strip of land, 100 x 50 feet, running from the back of the church to 19th Street, and an additional 50 x 20 foot plot on the southeast corner behind the church parsonage. It contained 64 vaults, including large public vaults used by licenses, and smaller, private vaults acquired by deed. The vaults were “splendidly built of brickwork throughout;” the entrance to some was by a door on the side; to others admittance was gained by lifting a slab on top. In an 1886 article in the Evening Post, a Chelsea resident describes a funeral he attended in the 18th Street churchyard during the summer of 1849, when a neighbor and her and child died during a cholera epidemic of that year. “I do not remember in what vault the young mother, with her babe asleep upon her quiet bosom, was laid away,” he recalled, “but I remember going down some steps that were green and slimy with the breath of decay, and looking with awe-struck curiosity at the contents of some shelves that were already occupied by crumbling tenants.”
By the 1880s, the members of the 18th Street Methodist Church viewed their defunct vault yard with disfavor, considering it unused land that could be a source of revenue. The trustees of the church, a young, “vigorous and business-like” group with no sentimental attachment to a generation that had long since passed away, in 1882 offered a resolution to remove the dead from the vaults in the strip of land extending from the rear of the church to 19th Street. Although many of the vault owners initially resisted the plan to clear out the vaults and sell the ground, by 1886 the Trustees had obtained consent to proceed with the disinterments and the bodies were removed to plots at Woodlawn and Cypress Hills cemeteries. After the removals, the church sold the section of the property fronting on 19th street for $26,000 and townhouses were built there. It’s not known when or if the bodies from the smaller plot to the rear of the parsonage, or the bodies from the earlier Chelsea Village burial ground, were ever removed from the church grounds.
The 18th Street Church continued as a place of worship for the Methodists in the Chelsea section until 1945, when they merged with the Metropolitan-Duane Methodist Church at 7th Avenue and 13th Street and subsequently sold their property on 18th street. During demolition of the church in 1950, workmen unearthed eleven human skulls and several dozen arm and leg bones when digging belong the surface of the lot. No evidence of the old vaults was reported at that time; the remains, which were found in a large pile in the ground, likely were left behind during the earlier removals. A six-story apartment building sits atop the site today.
Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; The History of the Charter Church of New York Methodism, Eighteenth Street, 1835-1885 (Force 1885); “Their Ancestor’s Bones,” New York Times, Jan 22 1882; “The City’s Old Graveyards,” The Chronicle (Mt Vernon NY), Aug 25 1882; “Opening a Charnel House,” New York Herald, Nov 15 1886; “Emptying a Graveyard,” Daily Graphic, Nov 16 1886; “A Tour Around New York,” Evening Post, Dec 15 1886; “Skulls Unearthed in Old Churchyard,” New York Times Mar 25 1950
At a back corner of Ocean View Cemetery in the Oakwood section of Staten Island is a narrow gravel road that leads into the woods. Wandering down the path, one passes thick brush and brambles, a small pond, rusted scraps of abandoned cars and other junk, until finally encountering a clearing. Here, lined up row by row seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is a cluster of aging headstones marking the graves of merchant mariners who died between 1901 and 1937 in a federal hospital on the borough’s north shore. The Marine Hospital, established on Bay Street in the Clifton section in the 1880s, was part of a network of hospitals around the country that were dedicated to the care of sick and disabled seamen. In the early 1900s, the Marine Hospital on Staten Island evolved into the U.S. Public Service Hospital, which in turn became the site of Bayley Seton Hospital.
After the graveyard on the hospital grounds became full, in 1901 the Marine Hospital purchased a section of Ocean View Cemetery as a new burial ground for the seamen who died in the facility. The men buried here—approximately 1,000, from all around the world—include Adolf Jorgenson of Norway, who died in 1909, aged 33; Joseph Giffney, a 51-year-old native of Massachusetts, who died in 1918; 72-year-old Benton Moore, a seaman from New Jersey who died in 1906; and Nemed Achi, a 21-year-old mess-room steward from India who was interred among the mariners in 1919.
Although the federal government paid for the graves, interment, and burial markers for the men who died in the Marine Hospital, no money was set aside for perpetual care of the burial ground and responsibility for maintaining the site was never assigned to any federal agency. When agencies restructured over the years, the Merchant Marine Cemetery fell through the cracks as ownership and responsibility became undefined, leading the site to suffer a long history of neglect. As early as 1947, just 10 years after burials at the graveyard ended, Representative Ellsworth Buck decried the “appalling conditions” at the abandoned site. Dubbed the “Forgotten Acre,” graves were sunken, headstones crumbling, and metal name markers rusted and broken. Despite efforts of elected officials and several community-sponsored cleanups over the decades, with no one taking on continual care of the burial ground, it would again be forgotten and left to the elements.
In recent years, Ocean View Cemetery’s board of directors committed to restoring the Merchant Marine Cemetery, regardless of who is legally responsible for it. Beginning in 2009, they installed the gravel access road, cleared the site of brush and tree branches, and reset or straightened many of the monuments. On Veteran’s Day 2011, American flags were placed on each grave at the reclaimed site—the first time these merchant marine veterans received such recognition.
Sources: Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 166; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 78-81; “Island’s Own Arlington Planned for Soldier Dead at Ocean View,” Staten Island Advance, May 7, 1951; “Treatment of the Men of ‘Forgotten Acre’ a Borough Blemish, Staten Island Advance, March 1, 2004; “Senator Seeks Federal Help to Repair Forgotten Cemetery,” Staten Island Advance, March 2 2004; “A Cemetery and Its War Dead Wait for a Savior,” New York Times, April 4, 2004; “Forgotten Acre Stuns Surgeon General,” Staten Island Advance, Apr 29, 2004; “At Staten Island Cemetery, a Tribute to Merchant Marine Vets of ‘Forgotten Acre,’ Staten Island Advance, Nov 10, 2011; The Forgotten Acre (Facebook site); U.S. Public Health Service—History; “New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” Nemed Achi, 11 Mar 1919, FamilySearch; “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” Ancestry.com
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 1843 the Town of Flatlands, located in today’s southeastern Brooklyn, acquired an acre of land in the township’s village of Canarsie that served as the community’s cemetery during the 19th century. The burial ground—on land purchased from John Remsen for $75—was situated next to the Methodist Protestant Church of Canarsie on what is now East 92nd Street. At the time the town established the burial ground in 1843 the area was a farming and fishing community of about 700 people, but it grew rapidly in the late 19th century, and new suburban houses attracted a more diverse population. In 1888 the town purchased another tract of land, nearby the original burial ground, to be used as a new cemetery for the growing community. Some 6,500 people have been interred in Canarsie Cemetery, which has retained its local ambiance, serving the people of Canarsie as well as the wider community.
Both of the Canarsie cemeteries have been imperiled at various times since the City of New York inherited these municipal properties when the five boroughs merged in 1898. The original burial ground, which was rarely used after the new cemetery opened in the 1890s, was essentially abandoned and forgotten by the early 20th century. William A. Eardeley visited the graveyard in 1915 and recorded inscriptions from the 89 gravestones he found at the site. “This cemetery is not kept up at all,” Eardeley writes in his description of the cemetery. “Fence is almost all gone; about one-third of the stones are fallen down,” he continues. “The yard is full of ill-kept shrubbery. Grass is high. Tins and paper rubbish are all about the yard. People use it as a thoroughfare and children play about the yard.” In 1932 skeletons and coffins in the neglected cemetery were destroyed when a sewer was run through the site in anticipation of the opening of East 91st Street. Soon after, East 91st Street was graded right through the graveyard, cutting the original property into two parts. In 1977, the city sold the segment of the property that was west of 91st Street to a developer and residential buildings now stand on that part of the site. The half-acre that remains on the eastern side of 91st Street has been preserved and is owned by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Many remains were moved to the new cemetery over the years, but approximately 80 burials may still be interred at the original cemetery site. No headstones are visible today in this vestige of the old town burial ground.
For many years, things were equally uncertain for the town’s successor cemetery. When ownership of the 12-acre Canarsie Cemetery, bounded by Remsen Avenue, Avenue K, Church Lane, and East 86th Street, was first transferred to the city, its operation was handed over to a board of trustees designated by the mayor. However, by 1924 there was only one trustee, George A. Schriefer, managing the cemetery—all the others had passed away and requests to appoint new trustees had repeatedly been ignored by the mayor’s office. The cemetery was unable to sell plots for three years because legally they could be conveyed only by direction of a majority of the board of trustees. The Brooklyn Standard Union reported that while Mr. Schriefer “does not desire to appear to be in any way disgruntled, he states that he is rather disturbed by the existing situation. However, he has retained the job from a sense of public duty and of loyalty to the community of which has been a resident for over forty years.”
Canarsie Cemetery was subsequently managed by a series of public agencies, including the Brooklyn borough president’s office and the city’s Department of General Services. By the 1970s, the city was determined to sell the cemetery to a private operator with the stipulation that it “continue as a burial ground for people of all races, faiths, and ethnic origins.” It took over 30 years for the city to find a buyer for the cemetery, which cost the city of $350,000 a year to maintain, and during which time there were long periods when no grave sites were sold because of its uncertain future. Finally, in 2010 Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn acquired Canarsie Cemetery for $50,000, with another $1 million dedicated to a trust fund to maintain the graves once the cemetery fills and can no longer generate money.
When it was sold in 2010, there was space for 6,000 more graves in Canarsie Cemetery, which, except for a few small family mausoleums, is modest, like the residential neighborhood that surrounds it. Entire families have bought plots here for future generations who will share the space with the community’s early Dutch and German settlers, the Italian and Jewish immigrants who came in the 1920s, and, more recently, those from Caribbean nations who have been attracted to the neighborhood. For over 100 years, the cemetery has been the end point of the annual Canarsie Memorial Day parade, where contingents of the Knights of Columbus, American Legion, and Boy Scouts march in full regalia for ceremonies in front of a plot where more than a dozen Civil War veterans are buried. The cemetery continues as a symbol of community pride and cultural heritage for the people of Canarsie, an ever-present reminder of what they were, who they are, and where they are going.
Sources: Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings County, Pl 30; Cemeteries in Kings and Queens Counties, Vol 2 (Eardeley 1916), 3-14; “W. Warner, 85 Dies, Father of Canarsie, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 28, 1920; “Finds Human Skull,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 2 1932; Documentation of Block 8218, Lot 26, Brooklyn, NY(Geismar 1987); “Correcting A Grace Church Misconception,” Canarsie Courier, July 1, 2010; “Craig Discovers that City Owns Canarsie Cemetery,”Brooklyn Standard Union, Sept 2, 1924; “Fight Canarsie Cemetery Vandals,”Brooklyn World-Telegram, Jan 8, 1965; “City to Undertake Sale Of Canarsie Cemetery, New York Times, Dec 13, 1975; “For Sale in Canarsie: A Beloved Century-Old Cemetery,” New York Times, Dec 2, 1988; “On Going Private: Mayor Wants to Sell Canarsie Cemetery, New York Times, Mar 8, 1995; “For Sale by Owner: 13 Acres. All 6,500 Tenants to Remain, New York Times, May 20, 2009; “A Place of Final Rest in Canarsie Is Changing Hands, New York Times, Aug 4, 2010; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010), 178, 417; Canarsie Cemetery
And my son Israel shall allow and set apart a piece of ground 4 rods square, lying in the field, called Hedden field, for a burying ground for myself and family forever, and I do except and reserve the same as I have showed him, and do order him and his to grant the liberty to pass and repass through my farm to the same.
With this clause in his last will and testament of February 25, 1775, Nathaniel Underhill (1690-1775) instructed his son Israel to preserve the family burial ground on their farm in what is today the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. Nathaniel was a grandson of Captain John Underhill, an early English settler and soldier in New England noted for his role in the Pequot War (1636-37), who eventually settled in Long Island. Nathaniel’s father, also Nathaniel (b. 1663), was the founder of the Westchester branch of the family, moving from Long Island and establishing a farm in what was then a southern part of the county. The elder Nathaniel is thought to have been the first to set aside land as a family burial ground on the Underhill farm at Williamsbridge, and may have been buried there.
In 1812, the Underhills conveyed their lands at Williamsbridge to the Lorillard family and by the late 19th century the burial ground, largely forgotten and “going to decay from neglect,” was part of what was known as the Lorillard-Spencer Estate. Interest in the family cemetery at Williamsbridge was revived with the creation in 1892 of the Underhill Society of America by descendants of John Underhill. In August 1901, members of the Society visited the burial ground, where they located 16 graves in a plot measuring 60 feet on its west and east sides and 57 feet on its north and south sides. The oldest gravestone was that of Nathaniel Underhill, who earmarked the cemetery in his 1775 will. His tombstone, which featured a winged cherub’s head, was inscribed, “Here Lyes the Body of Nathaniel Underhill Was Born August the 11 1690 And Departed This Life November The 27 1775 Aged 85 Years, 3 Months, and 16 Days.” The most recent tombstones were those of Nathaniel’s son Israel and his wife Abigail, both of whom died in 1806. Society members took three photographs of the burial ground during their 1901 visit—the only known images to document the site.
The City of New York seized most of the Underhill burial ground property in 1913 for the extension of 205th Street (today’s Adee Avenue), with financial compensation paid to an Underhill family association. Members of the Underhill Society, incorporated as Underhill Westchester Burying Ground, Inc., acquired a 100’ x 40’ lot at the northwest corner of Adee Avenue and Colden Avenue that contained what was left of the burial ground. In 1916, in anticipation of the street extension, the Underhill Society reported that graves in the portion of the burial ground that had been taken by the city would be moved to the lot at Adee and Colden avenues. A history of the Underhill family compiled in the 1930s states that remains from the burial ground were removed to the cemetery at St. Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon, where some Underhill family members worshipped in the 18th century. However, local historians and preservations believe that, although tombstones from the site were moved to St. Paul’s ca. 1920, the graves are still in the parcel at Adee and Colden avenues.
Three sandstone burial markers from the old family cemetery—those of Nathaniel Underhill and his son Israel (both mentioned above), as well as that of Anne Underhill, who died in 1786—are preserved at St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site, where they are mounted to the exterior southern wall of the bell tower. Since 1989, the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services has owned the parcel at Adee and Colden avenues. A chain-link fence encloses the site but there is nothing to indicate it is “the burying ground forever” of a prominent colonial-era family.
Sources: Bromley’s 1881 Atlas of Weschester County, Pl 44-45; Abstracts of Wills on File in the Surrogate’s Office, City of New York, Vol 8, 1771-1776 (NY Historical Society 1899), 320-321; Annual Reports of the Underhill Society of America, 1897-1916; Underhill Genealogy, Vol 2 (Frost 1932), 64-65, 87-89, 119-121; Burial Markers from the 18th Century Installed at St. Paul’s Church in the 20th Century, St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site, December 2014; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 247-255
Many of New York City’s cemeteries have been bulldozed for development over the years, the graves and the stories of the people buried in them lost to collective memory. In the last few decades, though, discovery of historic burial grounds during construction activities has provided opportunities to learn about segments of society that have made important contributions to the city’s history, but generally are overlooked in the historical narrative. The 1991 discovery of remains at the African Burial Ground site in Lower Manhattan revealed a wealth of information about life and death for Africans in colonial New York and became an enormously important site for the modern African American community, underscoring and commemorating their deep historical presence in the city and the nation. Recovery of remains from the site of one the Quarantine cemeteries on Staten Island in 2003 renewed interest in the history of the Quarantine Grounds and the link they provide to New York City’s history as a gateway for millions of immigrants. Another of the city’s “hidden histories” was uncovered with finding the burial vaults of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church, a congregation with a unique history of class and race inclusiveness.
In December 2006, human bones were found in backhoe fill when a parking lot at the southeast corner of Spring Street and Varick Street in Manhattan was being torn up for construction of a 46-story luxury hotel, Trump SoHo (recently renamed The Dominick). Research determined that the remains were of individuals interred in underground burial vaults associated with the Spring Street Presbyterian Church that stood on the site from 1811 until 1966, when the church was demolished and the parking lot was paved over the location. Archaeological excavations at the site recovered the remains of approximately 200 individuals, as well as artifacts including engraved metal coffin plates, coffin wood and nails, shroud pins, ceramics, coins, fabric, and a few personal items, including ribbons, buttons, hair combs, shoes, a whistle, and a gold wedding band. The human remains and artifacts were sent to Syracuse University where they were studied by anthropologists from 2007 until 2014, when they reinterred at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
The burial vaults at the Spring Street Presbyterian Church were four underground rooms, two made of limestone and two of brick, that were built along the southeast side of the church building and used between 1820 and 1846. During the nearly 200 years that had passed since the vaults were used, the wood coffins stacked within them had rotted and collapsed, leaving behind the piles of bones and artifacts that were unearthed during the excavation. Like the long-forgotten vaults, the distinctive history of Spring Street Presbyterian Church and its congregants had been obscured until it came to light again when the vaults were rediscovered. During the time period the burial vaults were in use, the church was a radical abolitionist congregation situated in a working-class neighborhood and its congregants were individuals of multiple classes and races (the church began admitting African Americans into full membership in 1820, seven years before slavery was abolished in New York).
The Spring Street remains—the only large collection of human remains recovered in the city that date to the first half of the 19th century—allowed anthropologists to gain an understanding of what life was like for these people in rapidly urbanizing New York. The remains told of variations in health (for example, 75 of the burials were children, and half of them suffered from rickets) and morphological features of the bone, teeth, and hair indicated significant differences in ancestry, suggesting that people from diverse backgrounds were interred together in the vaults at Spring Street. Equally important as the scientific finds, the discovery established a connection to and chance to commemorate New Yorkers who were in the forefront of early battles against slavery and were vanguards in the fight for civil rights.
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