New York City’s oldest black congregation, Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, was founded in 1796 by a group of about 100 worshippers who had been part of the mostly white John Street Methodist Church. In 1800, they built their first church building at the corner of Leonard and Church Streets in present-day Tribeca, where they remained until 1864. Here the congregation thrived, growing to over 750 members by 1821 when they separated from the white Methodist Episcopal Church denomination and formed a separate conference of AME Zion churches that spread throughout the United States and Canada and became known for religious and social activism. Today there are more than 1.2 million members of the AME Zion denomination that began with the Mother Zion congregation.
In 1807 a commissioner of health informed the city inspector that the AME Zion Church at Leonard Street “has no burying ground, but inter all their dead in a vault under the church. Since the first commencement of this practice [of burying their dead in the vault under the church] full five years have elapsed and I believe it will be nearly correct to state that, at an average, One hundred and fifty persons have been interred there annually since that period: hence there are now in that vault not less than seven hundred fifty dead bodies.” Fearing health risks, the Common Council prohibited further interments in the vault, and granted the church a section of the public burial ground located at today’s Washington Square Park. In 1864, Mother Zion sold its church property at Leonard Street for $90,000 and removed the bodies that had been interred there to grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery. Mother AME Zion Church is now located on 137th Street in Harlem and a 60-story skyscraper, 56 Leonard Street, is on the site of Mother Zion’s first church and burial ground.
Founded in the mid-1830s by African American entrepreneurs, the historic village of Weeksville, in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, became one of the largest free black settlements in the United States. This independent African American community established all that was needed to support its citizens, including a school, churches, an orphanage, a home for the elderly and, in 1851, a cemetery. On September 1, 1851, Alexander Duncan, Robert Williams and Charles Lewis (described as “respectable colored men”) purchased 29.5 acres of land at the eastern edge of Weeksville; 12 acres of this became the Citizens’ Union Cemetery, and the rest was set aside for building lots. Situated on high ground on Buffalo Avenue between today’s Sterling Place and Eastern Parkway, the cemetery was enclosed with a wooden fence, had an entry gate at the northwest corner of Sterling Place and Buffalo Ave and had an underground vault for the temporary reception of the dead.
Although intended as “a burial place for the colored,” the founders of Citizen’s Union Cemetery advertised that it had no “rule which excludes any person from sepulture within its border, on account of complexion.” The cemetery offered free burials to the poor, charging only to open and close the grave, a policy that contributed to the financial hardships the cemetery experienced throughout its history. Investors received a poor return, which caused many stockholders to sell their shares. The cemetery reorganized in 1854 under the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association but continued to struggle. By 1870, Mount Pleasant owed the city of Brooklyn $4,000 dollars in back taxes and the city intended to construct new streets through the cemetery lands. With permission from New York State, Mount Pleasant sold the cemetery in 1872 for $25,000 with the condition that they remove their dead from the site.
With some of the proceeds of the sale, Mount Pleasant’s trustees bought an acre of land at Cypress Hills Cemetery to receive the exhumed bodies from Mount Pleasant Cemetery. How many individuals were buried in Citizens’ Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery during its twenty-year history is unknown. Ninety-four bodies are known to have been reburied in the Mount Pleasant grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery, and many in unmarked graves were reportedly placed in a common trench there. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter who witnessed the exhumations at Mount Pleasant described the chaos that occurred during the process, because many people had been buried in unmarked graves that weren’t recorded in the cemetery’s books. As a result, the contractors removing the remains had no idea where to look for them and bodies were often caught by the steam shovel and “carried off to the dump before anything can be done.”
Sources: Sidney’sMap of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn Sheet 3; Bedford-Stuyvesant (Kelly 2007), 66; Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York (Wellman 2014), 70-72; A History of the City of Brooklyn (Stiles 1870), Vol 3, 633; “Citizens Union Cemetery Association,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 10, 1851, 3; “Our Public Cemeteries,” New-York Herald Jun 2 1867, 8; “Notice—The Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 25 1870, 4; “Mount Pleasant Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 22, 1871, 2; “Desecration of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 26, 1872, 3; NYCityMap
The passage of the Rural Cemetery Act by the New York legislature in 1847 spurred the creation of new large-scale cemeteries throughout the state, including over a dozen developed from farmland situated along the Brooklyn-Queens border. The first of these was Cypress Hills Cemetery, organized in 1848 as a non-sectarian cemetery that “might furnish extraordinary facilities for the vast and rapidly increasing population of this region.” Dubbed “the people’s graveyard” in a late 19th century guidebook for its inclusiveness and egalitarian principles, Cypress Hills offered a place “where every church and society may consecrate its own grounds according to its ideas of duty or feeling, and embellish them as its own means or taste may dictate.” Today Cypress Hills Cemetery is remarkable for the number of ethnic, religious, and social groups represented within its borders, and the resonance of their unique histories and cultural values.
The cemetery’s 225 acres of rolling terrain extend from Jamaica Avenue in Brooklyn to Cooper Avenue in Queens. Its open policies and affordable lots attracted many religious, fraternal, and benevolent associations, and by the 1880s some 50 organizations owned ground within its boundaries. Groups such as the Metropolitan Police Benevolent Burial Association, New York Press Club, and Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen acquired extensive plots of ground, as did churches and religious societies of many denominations, and numerous immigrant mutual aid societies. The U.S. Government owns a three-acre parcel in the cemetery that was set aside for burial of Civil War dead, and in 1879 Mount Sinai Hospital acquired a sizeable plot to provide free burial for patients who died in the institution and were not claimed by relatives or friends.
Cypress Hills has interred approximately 380,000 individuals since its inception, including an estimated 35,000 bodies transferred from church cemeteries in Brooklyn and Manhattan and reinterred here. It is the final resting place of a number of celebrated individuals, including iconic sex symbol Mae West, artist Piet Mondrian, and Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodger who integrated baseball. But what is most striking about Cypress Hills is the large clusterings of stones according to ethnic affiliation that seem to form “neighborhoods of the dead.” Significant among these are Chinese, Greek, Albanian, Japanese, Jewish, and Hispanic sections, each with memorial designs, grave adornments, offerings, and rituals tied to cultural values.
The city’s Chinese community has been burying their dead at Cypress Hills since the 1890s, when an acre of ground at the north end of the cemetery was established as a Chinese section. This was the burial ground used by the Hip Sing and On Leong tongs (secret brotherhoods) that battled one another in the streets of Chinatown during the gang wars that raged for the first three decades of the 20th century. These and other early Chinese graves at Cypress Hills are gone now due to the practice of Jup Gum, by which dead Chinese were disinterred, cleaned and sent back to China for reburial every five to seven years. This custom, which kept a dead person’s ghost from sorrowing in an alien land, faded with the onset of World War II and the rise of communism in China.
Chinese monuments now dominate much of the landscape at Cypress Hills, especially on hillsides where burial is considered auspicious. The Chinese plots are made more distinctive by the elaborate offerings at gravesites, where food is left for the dead and fake money, incense and other items are burned. When purchasing a grave, Chinese frequently bring along a feng shui practitioner for advice on the best placement, and Cypress Hills recently built a trapezoid-shaped section similar to ones in Hong Kong’s cemeteries to appeal to new immigrants.
More than a dozen prominent African Americans are among those buried at Cypress Hills—besides baseball legend Jackie Robinson, there is ragtime-and-jazz great Eubie Blake and Arturo Schomburg, the pioneering historian and scholar who helped lay the foundation for the field of African American studies, as well as lesser-known 19th century trailblazers such as James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medical degree in the United States, and Charlotte Ray, the nation’s first black female lawyer. Cypress Hills is the final resting place of Wallace Turnage, an escaped slave who wrote a rare, recently discovered manuscript detailing his experiences, and Gavin Cato, the seven-year-old accident victim whose death ignited the Crown Heights race riots in 1991.
In 1795, after the closure in 1794 of the African Burial Ground near Duane Street and Broadway, the African Society asked the City of New York for, and was granted, property on the west side of Chrystie Street between Stanton and Rivington for use as a new burial ground. The African Society, a group composed of about 30 free black Episcopalians, established the “Grounds as a Burial place to Bury Black persons of Every denomination and Description whatever in this City whether Bond or Free.” Trinity Church, the City, and various individuals aided the Society with money to purchase the 50-foot x 200-foot property situated at today’s 195-197 Chrystie Street.
In 1827, ownership of the “burial ground for blacks in this City” was transferred to the trustees of St. Philip’s Church, which was founded in 1809 as the first African American Episcopal parish in New York City. The cemetery continued to serve as a burial ground for the City’s black community, and, although the actual number of burials is unknown, it is estimated that 5,000 individuals were interred there. In any case, in 1835 the Rector of St. Philip’s Church reported, “Our cemetery, which has been in use forty years, is now so full, that we cannot inter our dead as deep as the law requires, and for a violation of this law our sexton has recently been heavily fined.”
In 1852 St. Philip’s sold the cemetery at Chrystie Street and, in 1853, purchased a parcel in the northwest corner of Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, where the remains were reinterred. The former cemetery parcel on Chrystie Street was soon redeveloped, and a nine-story brick building now covers the site. In 2006, human bone fragments were found at the west end of the 195-197 Chrystie Street property during excavations for the foundations of the New Museum of Contemporary Art that abuts the site. Cemetery removals, which were common in 19th century Manhattan, were not a thorough process and inevitably some remains were left behind; the fragments found at the site during the 2006 excavations are believed to be from the Chrystie Street African Burial Ground. The nearby M’Finda Kalunga Garden in Sara D. Roosevelt Park is named in memory of the burial ground.
Amid rows of modern tract houses on a quiet street in Staten Island is a graveyard that is regarded as one of the country’s most significant African American burial grounds. Rossville AME Zion Church Cemetery memorializes the history of Sandy Ground, one of the oldest continuously inhabited free black settlements in the United States. This African American enclave was founded near the towns of Rossville and Woodrow on the South Shore of Staten Island. Its history begins in 1828 when Capt. John Jackson bought land here shortly after slavery was abolished in New York in 1827. Capt. Jackson, an African-American ferryboat owner-operator, was the first black landowner on Staten Island. Other freedmen followed him to Sandy Ground, including oystermen from New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Snow Hill, Maryland, who were attracted by the rich oyster beds in the area.
The settlement was centered at the junction of present-day Woodrow and Bloomingdale Roads and acquired its name from the sandy soil of the area. Sandy Ground grew and prospered through the early 20th century and at its peak in the 1880s-1890s encompassed almost two square miles and had about 200 residents and over 50 homes. After oystering in the waters off Staten Island was banned in 1916 due to pollution, the Sandy Ground community gradually declined. The community suffered a further blow in 1963 when about half Sandy Ground’s remaining 25 homes were razed in a brush fire that destroyed a large portion of Staten Island’s South Shore. Today, 10 families who trace their roots to the original settlers still live in Sandy Ground.
The Zion African Methodist Episcopal congregation at Sandy Ground was incorporated in 1850, and in 1852 they purchased land on Crabtree Avenue where they built their church and established a cemetery. By 1890 the congregation had outgrown its original church and constructed a new building on Bloomingdale Road where descendants of Sandy Ground settlers still worship today. The cemetery on Crabtree Avenue has continued as the church and community burial ground.
Rossville AME Zion Church Cemetery occupies 1.6 acres on the south side of Crabtree Avenue, west of Bloomingdale Road. About 100 modest tombstones can be found in the graveyard and a recent ground-penetrating radar survey located more than 500 unmarked graves here. Dates on the tombstones range from 1860 to the present and represent over 40 families. Capt. John Jackson’s tombstone is here, as are markers for members of other early Sandy Ground families such as Bishop, Harris, Henry, Landin, Purnell, and Stevens.
Distinguished Sandy Ground resident George H. Hunter (1869-1967) also has a marker in the cemetery. Hunter was the son of a Virginia slave who escaped to her freedom in New York State just before the Civil War and who brought young George to Sandy Ground around 1880. Hunter went on to establish a successful cesspool building and cleaning business and was a longtime steward of the AME Zion Church and caretaker of its cemetery. In a classic New Yorker article published in 1956, legendary writer Joseph Mitchell profiled Hunter and chronicled the history of Sandy Ground and its residents.
Visiting the AME Zion Church Cemetery with Mitchell, Hunter remarked, “Most of the people lying in here were related to each other, some by blood, some by marriage, some close, some distant. If you started in at the gate and ran an imaginary line all the way through, showing who was related to who, the line would zigzag all over the cemetery.” Hunter’s “imaginary line” symbolizes the cemetery’s significance in representing Sandy Ground’s history. The family plots and markers offer a visible record of the network of relationships that constituted the community of Sandy Ground and provide a tangible and visible link to Sandy Ground’s long and continuous existence that has shaped and molded the lives of the people who lived there, and their descendants, in many powerful ways.
A small hill tucked between a section of the Long Island Motor Parkway Trail and apartment buildings of the Alley Pond Owners Corp. in Bayside, Queens, may contain the remains of a 19th century African American burial ground. Little is known about the burial site, but an 1870 notice briefly describes it:
Dutch Jake, Jacob Johnson, elderly colored resident of the Alley, was buried in the colored burying ground near Rocky Hill, which he had reserved for the use of his brethren when disposing of a piece of property he owned in that vicinity. (Flushing Journal, Nov. 12, 1870, p. 2).
An 1873 map of Bayside, including the area that is referred to in the notice, identifies a “Mrs. Johnson” located in the vicinity, but the burial ground is not shown. Property records for the Alley Pond Owners Corp. apartments, which were built just after World War II, specifically exclude the “quarter acre burial ground plot” from the apartment complex and describe the burial ground as located 14.39 feet south of the Long Island Motor Parkway Trail, with a depth of 149 feet and a frontage of 72 feet. Currently owned by the city, the site is unmarked, contains no headstones, and is covered with debris and vegetation.
Sources: Beers’ Atlas of Long Island Pl 58; NYCityMap; Deed, Alley Pond Owners Corp., 10/5/1985, p. 4