Tag Archives: African American cemeteries

African Burial Ground, Flatbush

Detail from an 1855 map showing the Negro Burying Ground situated between District School No. 1 and the Town Pound, at what is now the junction of Bedford and Church avenues in Flatbush

In 1810, the Long Island Star published an obituary for “a negro woman named Eve, aged near 110 years,” who died in the village of Flatbush. At the time of her death, Eve was enslaved to Lawrence Voorhes, one of the largest slaveholders in Flatbush as well as in all of Kings County. Slavery was widespread among the Dutch families of Kings County who depended heavily on enslaved black laborers to work their land. At the first U.S. census in 1790, slaves accounted for one-third of the total population of Kings County and two-fifths of Flatbush’s population. Eve might have been among the 13 slaves enumerated in Lawrence Voorhes’ household in the 1800 census, which did not list slaves individually by name.

Obituary of the enslaved woman Eve, who was buried in Flatbush’s African burial ground in 1810

Eve’s obituary notes that “her remains were piously interred in the African burying ground of the village of Flatbush, attended by a great concourse of the people of colour.” An 1855 map of Flatbush depicts the “Negro Burying Ground” at what is now the junction of Bedford and Church avenues. It was just east of the main village that centered around the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church—still standing one block to the west on Flatbush and Church avenues—and was adjacent to the Town Pound where horses, cattle, and other animals were confined. Little more is known of this burial ground, which may have been established soon after the arrival of slaves in Flatbush in the 17th century and used by Flatbush’s African American community into the mid-19th century. 

An 1873 map of Flatbush shows the Reformed Dutch Church property north of Holy Cross Cemetery where remains from the African burial ground might have been relocated.

In his 1884 history of Kings County, Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles writes that the “colored people’s burying-ground” of Flatbush, located on property owned by the Reformed Dutch Church, was removed when Bedford Avenue was laid out in 1865 and the remains reinterred at “a new burying-ground in another section of the Reformed Church land, at the northeast corner of the cemetery of the Holy Cross.” Some have interpreted Stiles’ statement to mean that the remains were reinterred in Holy Cross Cemetery, the Catholic cemetery founded in Flatbush in 1849. However, Holy Cross Cemetery has no record that remains from the African burial ground were interred there and it’s unlikely that they would have been removed to this Catholic burial ground. It’s more likely Stiles’ statement refers to Reformed Dutch Church property that is shown adjacent to the northern boundary of Holy Cross Cemetery on several 19th-century maps, and that the remains might have been reburied somewhere on this land. Whatever the case may be, no evidence of a reburial site can be found today.

1904 newspaper clipping reporting the discovery of a skeleton that may have been associated with Flatbush’s African burial ground

It’s possible that traces of Flatbush’s African burial ground still exist at the junction of Church and Bedford avenues, where human remains have been discovered on several occasions. Workmen unearthed skeletons at the site during sewer construction in 1890 and again in 1904.  Local historians have also suggested that the Flatbush District School No.1, erected in 1842 at the southwest corner of Bedford and Church avenues, was built on part of the African burial ground and that graves were disturbed when the school was constructed. This site was later occupied by Public School 90, which the city demolished in 2015 for safety reasons. When the city was considering reusing the then-vacant school building in the early 2000s, archaeologists conducted test excavations to determine if any evidence of a cemetery could be found on the school grounds; although they located no graves, they did recover four human teeth and fragments of a mandible that might have been associated with the African burial ground. The P.S. 90 school site is currently slated for development into an affordable housing and community space; a task force has been established to handle any remains that may be discovered and to consider potential memorialization of the history of the site.

A 2018 aerial view of Bedford and Church avenues in Flatbush; arrow indicates approximate location of the African burial ground; the vacant lot at the southwest corner of Church and Bedford avenues is the former P.S. 90 site slated for redevelopment; the historic Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church can be seen one block west at Flatbush Avenue

Sources: Map of part of the town of Flatbush, made for the commissioners for assessing expenses on the opening of Flatbush Avenue (Bergen 1855); Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 20; “Died,” Long Island Star, Mar 29, 1810; United States Census, 1800, FamilySearch; The Civil, Political, Professional and Ecclesiastical History and Commercial and Industrial Record of the County of Kings and the City of Brooklyn, New York, From 1683 to 1884. Vol. 1 (Stiles 1884); “Flatbush News,” Brooklyn Citizen, Dec 6, 1890; “Skeleton Makes Sport for the Boys of No. 90,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 18, 1904; “Dug Up Skeleton,” Brooklyn Times Union, Nov 18, 1904; “Irreverent Schoolboys Capture a Skeleton and Play Pranks with the Bones,” New York Sun, Nov 19, 1904; “Skull in the Attic, A Flatbush Mystery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 27, 1935; “Flatbush Village School,” Flatbush Magazine, Sept 1938; Of Cabbages and Kings County: Agriculture and the Formation of Modern Brooklyn (Linder & Zacharias 1999); Stage IA Archaeological Assessment, Beth Rivka School, Flatbush, Brooklyn (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2000); Stage IB Archaeological Investigation P.S.325-K, Church and Bedford Avenues, Brooklyn (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2001); Flatbush District No. 1 School Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 2007); Mayor de Blasio and Council Member Eugene Announce Plans to Transform Flatbush Site into Affordable Housing (Office of the Mayor—Press Release, Oct 9, 2020);  Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020); NYC Then&Now

Mount Olivet Cemetery

An 1881 illustration depicting Mount Olivet Cemetery’s entrance and original office building

Mount Olivet Cemetery is one of over a dozen cemeteries developed along the Brooklyn-Queens border after the New York legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act in 1847, spurring creation of new large-scale cemeteries throughout the state. In 1850 a group of Episcopalian businessmen from Brooklyn and Manhattan incorporated Mount Olivet and acquired a tract of farmland near the village of Maspeth in the historical Newtown township, Queens. The founding trustees originally intended to allow only Episcopalian funeral services within the cemetery but lifted this restriction by the time the cemetery opened to the public in 1851, making Mount Olivet entirely non-sectarian. In November 1851, Mount Olivet’s trustees ran an ad in the New York Times announcing that the cemetery was ready for interments, enticing buyers with the following description:

It combines all the attractions appropriate to a place set apart for the unmolested repose of the dead and its corporate privileges exclude the possibility of any disturbance in the future. The soil is dry; the surface elegantly diversified with wood and water, lawn and thick; and from some of its eminences, most magnificent views of the Cities of New York, Brooklyn and Williamsburg may be obtained. The rules and regulations adopted by the Trustees are identical to those of Greenwood Cemetery and the prices of lots have been fixed at very moderate rates and less than half those charged at Greenwood.

Mount Olivet’s original 42 acres are shown in this detail from an 1852 map; additional lands were acquired to expand the cemetery to its current 71 acres

Mount Olivet’s 71 acres extend from the main entrance on Grand Avenue in Maspeth to the rear entrance on Eliot Avenue, which separates it from Lutheran/All Faiths Cemetery to the south. Its open policies and affordable lots attracted many religious, fraternal, and benevolent associations, and groups such as the American Legion, the Masonic Merchants Lodge No. 709 F.&A.M., the Sociedad Espanola de Beneficencia, and the German Evangelical Home for the Aged acquired plots, as did churches and religious societies of many denominations. The cemetery’s undulating terrain features picturesque buildings, beautiful plantings, and a patchwork of multicultural graves and historical monuments. It is the final resting place of approximately 100,000 people, including colonial settlers, Civil War veterans, African American trailblazers, Russian nobility, fallen comrades of America’s labor and civil rights movements, notorious gangsters, and one of the country’s first self-made female millionaires.

Many families with long ties to historical Newtown acquired plots in Mount Olivet Cemetery after it opened, choosing the modern cemetery over the farmstead burial grounds or churchyard plots used by previous generations. One of these families was the Halletts, who have a large plot along the central road at Mount Olivet. The Hallett clan, led by patriarch William Hallett, emigrated from England and settled in the Astoria area of Newtown in 1652, remaining prominent in local political, business, and social life into the 20th century. In 1905 bodies and tombstones dating back to the 17th century were moved from the old Hallett burial ground at Astoria Boulevard and Main Avenue to Mount Olivet. One of the monuments in the Hallett plot at Mount Olivet carries a bronze plaque denoting the family’s colonial history.

The Civil War veterans’ plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nov 2020 (Mary French)

In 1885, Civil War veterans living in and around Newtown organized a Grand Army of the Republic Post, naming it Robert J. Marks Post No. 560 in honor of a local soldier who died of wounds received in battle in 1864. One of the post’s first orders of business was purchasing a fraternal burial plot in the northeastern section of Mount Olivet on which they erected, in 1889, a 12-foot-tall granite monument depicting a Union soldier at parade rest and wearing his overcoat. Among the veterans interred in the Civil War soldiers’ plot is Jeromus Rapelye (1834-1913), known to his Grand Army friends as “Fair Oaks” for injuries he sustained at that Virginia battle site in 1862. Rapelye was a founding member of Robert J. Marks Post, noted for marching at the head of the group during their annual Memorial Day exercises and for personally visiting every soldier’s grave in Newtown to decorate it with flowers. 

Excerpt from the obituary of 30-year-old WWI veteran John. L. Davis, one of the Harlem Hellfighters interred at Mount Olivet

Members of Newtown’s historic black community also are interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery, as are figures prominent in black fraternal, civic and religious life of Brooklyn and Harlem, and African Americans who pioneered in their fields. Notable are Bessie Buchanan, the first black woman to become a member of the New York legislature; James P. Johnson, influential jazz pianist and composer who wrote “The Charleston;” actor Oscar Polk, known for his role as Pork in Gone With the Wind; renowned Trinidadian calypso singer MacBeth the Great; James Lockley, one of of Harlem’s first African American businessmen, his department store was a local landmark; and several veterans of the Harlem Hellfighters, the most celebrated African American regiment in World War I.

Members of the Japanese American Association of New York at the annual grave attendance ceremony in the Japanese section of Mount Olivet Cemetery, May 2013 (JAANY)

The Japanese Mutual Aid Society, founded in 1907 by Dr. Toyohiko Takami, purchased a plot of land at Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1912 for Japanese immigrants who died in New York without family here to arrange for their burial. Located at the south end of Mount Olivet, this plot is the city’s oldest Japanese burial ground and burials are still occasionally made there. Continuing the legacy of Dr. Takami, the Japanese American Association of New York holds an annual Bosankai, or grave attendance ceremony, at Mount Olivet to honor the ancestors and early Japanese New Yorkers interred there. Each Memorial Day a group attends the ceremony, conducted by Buddhist priests and Christian ministers. After completing the service at Mount Olivet, the group proceeds to Cypress Hills Cemetery where they repeat the ceremony at the Japanese American section there.

Eastern Orthodox monuments at Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nov 2020 (Mary French)

The distinctive three-barred cross of Eastern Orthodoxy surmounts many monuments at Mount Olivet Cemetery, marking the graves of immigrants and descendants from former Soviet countries, the Middle East, and the Balkans. New York’s growing Eastern Orthodox community began acquiring extensive grounds at Mount Olivet in the early 1900s, and the Russian Orthodox Church erected a small chapel in the southeast corner of the cemetery. Due to its affiliation with the Eastern Orthodox community, Mount Olivet is the burial place of a number of members of aristocratic families who immigrated to New York when the Russian Empire was overthrown. One of these exiled aristocrats at Mount Olivet is perfumer Prince Georges Vasili Matchabelli, descendant of the royal house of Georgia in the Transcaucasia, interred here in 1935 following a three-hour funeral service at Manhattan’s Russian Orthodox Church of Christ. Just steps from Matchabelli’s grave at Mount Olivet is the burial spot of Polish-born cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965). Famous for rising from Krakow’s Jewish ghetto to become one of the world’s richest businesswomen, Rubinstein rests beside her second husband, Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia of Georgia. 

Gravemarker of political activists Steve Katovis and Gonzalo Gonzales at Mount Olivet Cemetery (Babis Vogias )

Three political activists killed in separate altercations with police during labor and and civil rights protests in 1930 are interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery. In January of that year, 400 members of the Communist Party of the United States accompanied the body of Steve Katovis, a Greek vegetable-market clerk shot down in a clash between police and striking market workers in the Bronx, to Mount Olivet for interment. On July 1, 1930, Alfred Luro (a “Negro Communist,” according to news reports) was laid to rest at the cemetery when he died following a scuffle with police during a political protest in Harlem; Mexican organizer Gonzalo Gonzales, killed at a memorial rally for Luro, joined his deceased comrades at Mount Olivet.  A monument marking the grave of Katovis and Gonzales is carved with symbols of the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party in the United States. At the bottom of the marker are the words “Martyrs in Labor’s Cause.”

A crowd of curiosity seekers and reporters gathers around Jack “Legs” Diamond burial site  at Mount Olivet, Dec 1931 (Daily News)

Perhaps the most infamous figure buried at Mount Olivet, Prohibition-era Irish gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond was interred in a hastily-dug grave in a remote corner of the cemetery after church authorities refused his widow’s request to have him buried in consecrated ground at a Catholic cemetery. Nicknamed “the clay pigeon of the underworld” for surviving numerous attempts on his life, Diamond’s luck ran out when he was shot to death in an Albany rooming house in December 1931. His widow Alice was murdered in her Brooklyn apartment two years later. Diamond’s burial spot eludes modern curiosity seekers—he and Alice  are buried in unmarked graves at Mount Olivet, and their location is not disclosed to the public.

A view of Manhattan from Mount Olivet, April 2016 (Mary French)
Location of Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens (OpenStreetMap)

View more photos of Mount Olivet Cemetery

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of Kings and Part of Queens Counties, Long Island N.Y.; Mount Olivet Cemetery; Mount Olivet Cemetery (1851); “Mount Olivet Cemetery,” New York Times, Nov 12, 1851; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881); “Founding Family’s Monument Updated,” Queens Chronicle, Aug 25, 2011; “Died for the Union,” Brooklyn Citizen, Nov 11, 1889; “Jeromus Rapelye,” Newtown Register, Aug 14, 1913; “Sgt. John L. Davis’ Funeral Impressive,” Amsterdam News, Apr 7, 1926; “‘Gabriel’ Dies,” Amsterdam News, Jan 15, 1949 p5; James R. Lockley, New York Age, Nov 30 1957; “Macbeth the Great, Calypso Singer Dies,” Amsterdam News, Feb 2, 1957; “Bessie A. Buchanan, Ex-State Aide, Dies,” New York Times, Sep 11, 1980; “A Place for All Eternity In Their Adopted Land,” New York Times, September 1, 1997; Japanese American Association of New York; “Russians Open Chapel Closed in 1923 Strife,” New York Tribune May 10, 1937; “Prominent Russians Mourn Matchabelli,” New York Times, Apr 4, 1935; “Helena Rubinstein Dies Here at 94,” New York Times, Apr 2, 1965; “Red Rally Orderly Under Police Guard,” New York Times, Jan 29, 1930; “3 Police Handle Parade of 3,000 Reds at Funeral,” New York Herald Tribune, Jul 2, 1930; “Honor Fallen Red,” Amsterdam News, Jul 9, 1930; Steve Katovis—Steve the Red (Vogias 2016); “Niece, 13, Leads Last Rites for ‘Legs’ Diamond,” New York Herald Tribune, Dec 23, 1931; “Play Pals, Big Shots Shun Diamond Grave,” Daily News, Dec 23, 1931; Resting Places:The Burial Sites of More than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3rd ed. (Wilson 2016); OpenStreetMap

New Lots Cemetery

An 1886 map of New Lots shows the old cemetery next to the school of the north side of New Lots Ave, and the new cemetery next to the church on the south side of New Lots Ave

When the historic town of Flatbush became overcrowded with Dutch farmers in the 1670s, a consortium of settlers were granted permission to set up new plantations on land east of Flatbush in what is now the East New York section of Brooklyn. The new community, known as New Lots, established a burial ground on common lands situated on the south side of today’s New Lots Avenue and Barbey Street, extending north past Livonia Avenue.

By the early 19th century, New Lots’ farmers had tired of traveling to Flatbush to attend church, and in 1823 built their own Dutch Reformed Church on the south side of New Lots Avenue, opposite the cemetery where generations of Van Siclens, Rapeljes, Vanderveers, Schencks and other early families had been laid to rest. Around this same time, they erected a school just west of the cemetery, on the common lands on the north side of New Lots Avenue. Soon needing to expand their burial grounds, in the 1840s they established a new cemetery—owned and managed by the lot holders—on land adjoining the Reformed Church. Many descendants of the old families moved their dead from the original cemetery to family lots in the new cemetery. The original cemetery gradually feel into disuse and the remaining graves were largely abandoned; by the end of the 19th century, the site was commonly known to locals as the “old slave cemetery.”

A plaque commemorating New Lots’ historic African American community and its burial ground is mounted at 683 Barbey Street (Mary French)

Most of the original Dutch settlers utilized enslaved people on their farms. The population of New Lots in the 17th and 18th century is unknown, but the 1820 census enumerated 338 whites and 91 blacks in New Lots and half of the town’s 62 families owned slaves. Although the black population of New Lots remained relatively small until the 20th century, African Americans have been a critical part of the development of New Lots since colonial times. When the original burial ground was established, a clearly distinguished portion of the parcel—the section at the north end, near Livonia Avenue—was set aside for New Lots’ black community. The African American community continued to use this burial ground throughout the 19th century. Articles from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1880s and 1890s note, “once in a great while there is a colored person interred in the back part of the [old New Lots Cemetery] and “there is no care taken of the place except in the negro part.”

This 1900 photo provides a view towards the northwest of the Old New Lots Cemetery, with the corner of P.S. 72 visible. A broken tombstone lies across the path (BDE)

By the turn of the century, New Lots had evolved from a rural farming district to the 26th Ward of the City of New York. With its broken down fences, overturned headstones and generally dilapidated appearance, the old cemetery—containing the African burial ground as well as many burials of white community members that had never been moved to the new cemetery—was considered an eyesore and nuisance to the area’s residents. The new, large Public School 72 now stood next to the graveyard, erected in 1888 by the Board of Education to replace the town’s old school. A local resident decried the situation in an 1899 letter to the Daily Eagle, remarking, “a desecrated cemetery alongside of one of the best and largest public schools in Brooklyn is not a very pleasing spectacle, and it is to be hoped some action will soon be taken by the city government toward remedying the evil.”

A 1922 view of tombstones in the Old New Lots Cemetery, looking northwest towards Livonia Ave and the elevated subway tracks (NYHS)

After years of community agitation and complaints, in the early 1920s the old cemetery was taken over by the school for use as a playground. Although public officials announced their intentions to remove the remaining burials on the site—including at a 1908 meeting of the New Lots Board of Trade, where President Jacob Hessel stated, “it matters not that these bones are but the remainder of slaves; slaves they were, but they were also part of New Lots’ history, and as such we owe them respect”—there is no evidence removals occurred at the time the playground was established.

Street sign on Livonia Ave commemorating the African burial ground. Part of the New Hope Family Worship Center can be seen beneath the train tracks; this building was erected on the northernmost section of the old cemetery in 1954 (Mary French)

In the mid-1950s, the old burial ground site was redeveloped—P.S. 72 was demolished, replaced with a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and the school playground was converted into a public park, (Schenck Playground), both of which still stand at the site today. A shirt-pleating plant was built on the northernmost section of the old cemetery site, north of Livonia Avenue—in 2000, this building was converted into New Hope Family Worship Center. In 2017, fragments of human bone, pieces of tombstones, and other evidence of the old cemetery were located during archaeological tests conducted at Schenck Playground prior to planned improvements at the site, suggesting disturbed and intact burials may exist beneath the park. In 2019, the playground was renamed Sankofa Park in honor of the African burial ground that was part of the old cemetery.

On the south side of New Lots Avenue, the 200-year-old Dutch Reformed Church survives and, next to it, the “new” New Lots Cemetery that has been in use since the 1840s. The cemetery is still owned by the New Lots Cemetery Association, composed of descendants of New Lots’ early Dutch settlers.

Rear view of New Lots Reformed Church (built 1832) and the New Lots Cemetery (established in 1840s), as seen west from Jerome street, 1934 (NYPL)
View of New Lots Cemetery, December 2010 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view showing the present New Lots Cemetery and the approximate boundaries of the Old New Lots Cemetery (indicated in red)

View more photos of New Lots Cemetery

Sources: Robinson’s 1886 Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 40;“An Old Farmer’s Talk,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1886; “An Old Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 31, 1891; “A Neglected Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 5, 1899; “The Old Dutch Cemetery in East New York,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 5, 1900; “Cemetery Gets Permission,”  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 24, 1903; “Canine Cops in New Lots,” The Chat [Brooklyn], Nov 7, 1908; “New Lots Cemetery Ass’n Elects Rapelje as Head,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 11, 1923; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 105; Cemetery Inscriptions from New Lotts Burying Ground (Frost 1913); Phase IA Archeological Literature Review and Fieldwork Plan, Schenck Playground (Hartgen Archeological Associates 2016); Phase IB Archeological Field Reconnaissance, Schenck Playground (Hartgen Archeological Associates 2018); “Celebration and Re-interment of Our Ancestors,” Amsterdam News, Aug 1, 2019

Bethel A.M.E. Church Cemetery

An 1868 map of the Town of Westchester shows the Bethel A.M.E. Church and Cemetery located on what is now Unionport Road.

African Americans have been a part of the heritage of the Bronx since 1670, when slaves were brought from Barbados to live and work on the estate of the wealthy and aristocratic Morris family. Free and enslaved blacks were integral to the borough’s development, constituting between 10 and 15 percent of the area’s population during the colonial period. Before the end of slavery in New York in 1827, most blacks in the Bronx were buried in plots set aside for them on the estates of slave-holding families. In 1849, a group of black men formed the first African American church in the Bronx and, alongside it, the only independent African burial ground known to have existed in the borough.

In the 1840 census, 187 African Americans were among the 4,154 residents of the Town of Westchester (now part of the East Bronx). Blacks worshipped, were baptized, married and buried at the town’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church or elsewhere, but they had no place in the town where they could serve in leadership roles or have their own burial grounds. To remedy this, the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Westchester formed in 1849 and a year later acquired a 1.25-acre parcel on what is now Unionport Road.

The congregation built their church, known as Bethel A.M.E., at the southeast corner of the parcel, and used the land behind the building as a cemetery. The church and adjacent cemetery were situated at a provincial commercial center convenient to a good number of African-American laborers, skilled craftsmen, and service professionals who worked on the estates of the East Bronx or in area businesses. But by the late 1800s, Bethel A.M.E. struggled to survive—although  the congregation reincorporated as Centreville African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1888, in 1894 they sold the property and disbanded. Chang Li Supermarket occupies the site today.

A view of the Bethel A.M.E. plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Westchester Co. (Mary French)

At least 58 individuals were interred in the Bethel A.M.E. church cemetery between 1850 and 1894. Prior to disposing of the church property, the trustees had the remains in the cemetery exhumed and reinterred in a plot they acquired at Mount Hope Cemetery in Westchester County. The Bethel A.M.E. plot at Mount Hope is marked with a large monument commemorating the congregation’s history. The memorial is inscribed: “Bethel A.M.E. Church of Westchester, New York. Founded by Rev. Stephen Amos, dedicated Mar 11, 1849. Elders Rev. Ely N. Hall, Rev. Jas. M. Williams. Trustees Uriah Copeland, Thos. Chapman, Jno. G. Mickens, Benj. States, Hy. Jackson, Jno. Francis, Eppenetis Treadwell.” 

Among those buried in the Bethel A.M.E. cemetery were several members of the Mickens family of West Farms. John Mickens, a church trustee, was a laborer originally from Maryland who, with his wife Charlotte, purchased a parcel of land in the Town of West Farms in 1850. John’s son, also named John, was a waiter who lived in separate household in West Farms with his wife Julia, a dressmaker, and their children. The younger John Mickens was interred at Bethel A.M.E. cemetery in 1867; his headstone, standing in the church’s plot at Mount Hope Cemetery, is one of the few intact markers surviving from the original cemetery. 

One of the fragementary tombstones marking the graves of the children of Uriah Copeland, originally buried in the Bethel A.M.E. cemetery

Some of the earliest burials in the Bethel A.M.E. cemetery were eight children of Uriah and Zilpah Copeland, interred there between 1849 and 1852. Uriah Copeland, a Virginia native who lived with his family in the Town of Westchester in the 1840s and 1850s, was a founding trustee of Bethel A.M.E. He also is notable as an associate of David Ruggles, the leading African American abolitionist of antebellum New York City. Copeland’s name appears alongside Ruggles’ in notices published in several national anti-slavery newspapers. They were among the men who announced the “National Reform Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the United States of America” to be held in New Haven, Connecticut, in September 1840 to form “a bond of union the will secure simultaneous action for reform in the hallowed cause of human freedom.” Later that same year, Copeland was on the committee “introducing to favorable notice” the Mirror of Liberty, an African-American magazine edited and published by Ruggles.

Uriah Copeland made his living as a farmer and carpenter and in the late 1850s he managed the Benjamin S. Collins estate in the Town of Pelham. In the 1860s, Uriah and Zilpah Copeland relocated to Providence, Rhode Island, with their surviving children. Broken tombstones marking the gravesites of the children they lost when they lived in the Bronx remain in the Bethel A.M.E. plot at Mount Hope Cemetery. These poignant relics mark short lives and convey loss, but also serve as reminders of the family’s role in local history and provide links to the early African American church and cemetery that they helped establish.

Uriah Copeland, one of the founders of Bethel A.M.E. church, was among the African American activists who announced this meeting in 1840
Commemorative monument at the Bethel A.M.E. plot, Mount Hope Cemetery (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view shows the former site of the Bethel A.M.E. Church and Cemetery on Unionport Road in the East Bronx

View more photos of the Bethel A.M.E. reburial plot at Mount Hope Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 16; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 24-27; Blacks in the Colonial Bronx (Ultan 2012); “Plants and People, Remembering the Bronx River’s African-American Heritage,” Bronx River Sankofa, March 6, 2014; “National Reform Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the United States of America,” The Liberator, Jul 10, 1840, 2; “The Mirror of Liberty,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, Nov 5, 1840, 87; “Country Seat to Let or For Sale” New York Times, Apr 15, 1858; Ancestry.com

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