It was still morning, and the quiet of the huge Evergreen Cemetery was broken only by the idling engine of Otis Chance’s big yellow backhoe. The machine was parked at the edge of the cemetery’s Ascension Section, a few yards from Yusef Hawkins’ grave, a few hundred yards from where Michael Griffith, victim of the Howard Beach racial attack, was buried on the day after Christmas in 1986. Otis Chance dug both of those holes in the sandy Queens earth. “I even carried Michael Griffith’s coffin,” he said. “You don’t always know who they’re for, but the foreman told us yesterday this one was for Hawkins,” said Chance, a 34-year-old black man who owns and lives in a house in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section. “It’s a tragedy, a damn shame, nonsense, stupidity,” he said, shaking his head. “It was the same way with Griffith—it didn’t make any sense, what happened. You feel so bad, so sorry for the families.” (Daily News, Aug 31, 1989)
Evergreens Cemetery is a non-denominational burial ground created in 1849 that spans 225 acres along the Brooklyn-Queens border. Prominent landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing designed the grounds, and the results were described as “a perfect rural cemetery” by one 19th-century guide to New York City cemeteries. The wooded landscape includes winding paths traversing an undulating terrain, high points that offer scenic vistas of the Manhattan skyline and Jamaica Bay, and a picturesque Gothic Revival chapel designed by architect Alexander Jackson Davis in 1849/50 (now used as an administration building).
Evergreens is the resting place of over 526,000 people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds; among the notables interred here are dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, jazz musician Lester Young, and world chess champion William Steinitz. Distinctive plots include the Seaman’s Grounds, which hold the remains of more than 1,200 sailors; Celestial Hill, one of the early burial grounds for New York’s Chinese immigrants; and the Actors Fund Plot, where 500 members of the entertainment industry are interred. Also of note is the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Memorial, a haunting monument to several victims of the 1911 Triangle factory fire buried here; the victims’ names, unidentified for a century, were uncovered in 2011 through the persistence of researcher Michael Hirsch and have been added to the memorial.
The graves of Michael Griffith and Yusuf Hawkins—both victims of late-1980s racial attacks—are in an area of modest graves on the northern side of Evergreens Cemetery. Unlike older sections of the cemetery that are named for pastoral features such as Sylvan Dell, Lake View, and Hickory Knoll, these newer sections are named for biblical themes. In the Redemption section is the burial place of 23-year-old Michael Griffith, killed in 1986 when he was struck by a car as he was chased onto a highway by a group of young white men in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens. Three years later, 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins was laid to rest in the nearby Ascension section after he was shot to death during an attack by a white mob in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The peacefulness of the gravesites of these two young men is a stark contrast to the anguish and civic unrest that followed their deaths, one of the worst periods of racial tension in New York City’s history.
Sources: The Cemeteries of New York(Judson 1881); The Eagle and Brooklyn: The Record of the Progress of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle…(Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1893); Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008(Rousmaniere 2008); The Evergreens Cemetery—The Cultural Landscape Foundation; The Evergreens Cemetery; “When Jack Tar Dies in Port—A Final Resting Place in the Evergreens Cemetery,” New York Times, May 28 1893;“He’ll Bid Yusef His Last Farewell,” New York Daily News, Aug 31, 1989; “100 Years Later, the Roll of the Dead in a Factory Fire Is Complete,” New York Times, Feb 20, 2011; “The Story Behind HBO’s Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,” Time, Aug 13, 2020; OpenStreetMap
In 1893, the Richmond County Advance published the obituary of 70-year-old John Keys, “a colored man of Elm Street, Port Richmond,” encapsulating his epic life story in the following summary:
Mr. Keys was born a slave in Virginia, and ran away from a hard master, and hid himself in the Dismal Swamp, where he dwelt for a year, food being supplied to him by friends from outside. Learning that his master had sold him to a better man, he came out of the Swamp and entered again into bondage. He went with his new master to Arkansas. Afterward with Mitchell Allen, now of West Brighton, and other colored people, he came to New York to take passage to Liberia. A resident of West Brighton seeing him in the city, suggested Staten Island as a better place to live in than Liberia, and so quite a number of them came to the Island. Mr. Keys was an intelligent man, quite a good carpenter and mason, and was much employed by Capt. Anderson of Port Richmond in jobs about the various buildings which he erected.
The obituary also notes that Keys was interred “in the cemetery in Cherry Lane,” the main burial ground for African Americans on the north shore of Staten Island from the 1850s through the early 20th century. This cemetery, which was situated near the intersection of present-day Forest Avenue (formerly Cherry Lane) and Livermore Avenue, can be traced back to 1850 when the Second Asbury African Methodist Episcopal Church acquired the land. Here they erected a house of worship and established a burial ground for their members. But, lacking a strong membership, the congregation’s small church building soon fell into disrepair and had been destroyed by the time Staten Island historian William T. Davis visited the site in the late 1880s.
After the church was gone, the property was still used as a cemetery for the local black community. A painted board and broken headstone were the only monuments Davis found during his visit, and he observed that most of the graves were marked by stakes. The board, placed near the road, was inscribed with the names of Aaron Bush, who died in 1889 at age 46, and Augustin Jones, who died in 1873, aged 33. In concluding his description of the site, Davis prophetically remarked: “The existence of these graves will probably soon be forgotten. The painted board cannot last long; the plot is unprotected by a fence, and only a clump of particularly high weeds and tangle mark its site in the rest of the field.”
In the late 1920s, the Second Asbury A.M.E. (existing by that time only as an organization of trustees)transferred the Cherry Lane cemetery to a new corporation, the African Methodist Church Cemetery of Staten Island, Inc. At that time, a list was made of about 40 known individuals interred in the half-acre burial ground. The most well-known of those buried there was Benjamin Perine, reportedly the oldest former slave on Staten Island when he died in 1900. In 1950, the cemetery property was seized by the City of New York for non-payment of taxes, although the church claimed the land should have had tax-exempt status. An out-of-court settlement was reached in 1953, whereby the cemetery property was sold to Sidelle Mann of the Bronx. By late 1950s-early 1960s, a gas station existed at the site; today it is beneath a shopping plaza.
No one knows for sure what happened to the bodies interred in the Cherry Lane African Church Cemetery. Former borough historian Richard B. Dickenson researched the site in the 1980s-1990s and concluded that some of the bodies may have been removed to Moravian Cemetery or other local burial grounds between the 1920s and 1950s. However, he also discovered there were periodic reports of bones being found on the property when it was redeveloped. Dickenson’s work suggests that it is very likely that remains—of former slaves, freedmen, and members of some of Staten Island’s most prominent black families—may still exist beneath the shopping center.
Located on a quiet residential block in the Bensonhurst section of southwestern Brooklyn, the old New Utrecht Cemetery is a relic of a time when this locale was the heart of one of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The one-acre burial ground, at the corner of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, was established in 1654 when the Dutch settled the village of New Utrecht. The cemetery was centrally located on the village’s main thoroughfare (now 84th Street) and the town’s first house of worship, the New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church, was constructed at its northeast corner in 1700. Although owned by the church, the cemetery was traditionally a community burial place where any inhabitant of New Utrecht could be buried regardless of religious affiliation.
In 1828 the Reformed Dutch congregation tore down their building adjacent to the cemetery and built a new church two blocks away, at 84th Street and 18th Avenue, where it is today. In 1899, St. John’s German Lutheran Church (later Metropolitan Baptist Church) was erected where the Dutch church formerly stood; this building still stands at the northeast corner of the cemetery. Clustered closest to the church are the family plots of the earliest New Utrecht families, including the Van Brunts, Cortelyous, Cowenhovens, Cropseys, and Bennetts. Further from the building are plots for families who settled in the area in the 19th century a later—many with Scotch-Irish and Italian surnames. Behind the church is an unmarked area of the cemetery where American Revolutionary War soldiers are said to be buried.
In the northwest corner of the cemetery, near the intersection of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, is another section unmarked by gravestones. This is the old “slave burying ground,” once fenced off the rest of the grounds, where members of the local African American community were buried into the 20th century. Though the names of most of those interred here are unknown, historical obituaries provide information for a few. Among them is John Hicks, a former slave of the Cortelyou family, buried “in that section set apart for colored people in the New Utrecht Cemetery” when he died in 1896. Also here is Anthony Thompson, who died in the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People in 1911 at age 98. Born enslaved at Paterson, New Jersey, Thompson escaped by running away at age 16, eventually settling in New Utrecht and fathering 13 children.
At the northeast corner of the cemetery is a large granite obelisk memorializing physicians James E. Dubois and John L. Crane, who died of yellow fever while treating local victims of the disease during an 1856 epidemic. The seven-ton monument, which previously stood 18 feet high, broke off during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and has lain on the ground since then. The townsmen of New Utrecht resolved to erect the monument at a meeting in December of 1856, where they made the following declaration:
That by the heroic courage and benevolence displayed by them in visiting all having the yellow fever, both rich and poor, until they were taken down themselves with that awful disease, thus sacrificing their own lives for their fellow suffers; resolved, therefore, that as they have endeared their memory to us, their neighbors and friends, we will erect a suitable monument to their many virtues.
Approximately 1,300 people have been interred in New Utrecht Cemetery during the past three centuries. Although the cemetery is still active, burials there are now rare.
Sources: Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus (Bangs 1912); New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1998); “Respect to the Martyrs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 2, 1856;“Burial of a Former Slave,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 17, 1896; “The Story of New Utrecht,”Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 1, 1900; “New Utrecht Village’s Old Dutch Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 23, 1900; “Old Church Graveyard in Sad State of Neglect,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 24, 1905; “Obituary—Anthony Thompson,”Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 1, 1911; “Stones in New Utrecht Cemetery Crumbling, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 23, 1931; “A Burial Ground for the Mighty, Laid Low by Weeds,” New York Times, Dec 2, 2007
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.
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.
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 inHoly 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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