Tag Archives: Brooklyn cemeteries

Naval Cemetery

Detail from an 1869 map showing the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Naval Hospital, and Naval Cemetery (arrow)

Established in 1801 on the shores of Wallabout Bay, the Brooklyn Navy Yard served as one of the nation’s foremost naval shipbuilding facilities from 1801 until it was decommissioned in 1966. In 1824, the Navy purchased land directly eastward of the main Navy Yard property to build a hospital complex. Opened in 1838, the Brooklyn Naval Hospital became a leading center of medical innovation, developing new techniques in anesthetics, wound care, and physical therapy. The hospital closed in 1948, but the property remained in use as a naval receiving station until 1990.

The Naval Hospital campus and Naval Cemetery in 1904

In the early 1830s, the Navy established a small burial ground on the eastern edge of the hospital campus. The two-acre Naval Cemetery was used from about 1831 to 1910 and was the burial place for more than 2,000 people of all races and creeds, most of them officers and enlisted men of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. Interred here were two Congressional Medal of Honor winners, Vendovi, the “Fijian Cannibal Chief” who died in the Naval Hospital in 1842, and individuals from more than 20 different countries.

Among early interments at the Naval Cemetery were 28 sailors and Marines who perished when the U.S. receiving ship Fulton exploded while moored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in June 1829. Originally laid to rest at Wallabout Cemetery, in November 1834 the remains of those killed in the Fulton explosion were disinterred and escorted under Marine guard to a stone vault in the Naval Cemetery grounds.

In 1897, a New York Times reporter visited the Naval Cemetery and described the graveyard behind the Naval Hospital:

It is little larger than the ordinary city block, and is inclosed on the hospital side with a high brick wall, and on the other three sides with a tall iron fence, which is badly in need of a coat of paint. Outside this railing, and facing Flushing Avenue, are several foundries, machine shops, factories and stables that completely prevent a view of the cemetery from the street. The entrance is through a small street running back from Flushing Avenue, and separating the city and Government property. It is seldom traveled and never cleaned. The children in the neighborhood use the place as a playground. There are heavy chains and a stout padlock on the cemetery gate.

The cemetery is rarely visited. One’s first impression of it is that it receives no attention outside of keeping the grass cut and the trees trimmed… Scattered throughout the cemetery are tall elms. One of the things that strike the visitor most forcibly is the lack of monuments. There are no handsome stones to mark the last resting places of the men who gave their lives to their country. In fact some of the graves have no headpieces except the kind that the Government furnishes. Some of these have been broken away or lost, and it is not known who lies beneath. 

Newspaper clipping reporting a burial at the Naval Cemetery in February 1900

When the Times reporter explored the cemetery in 1897, most of the graves were marked with cast-iron markers about a foot square, many of them rusty, worn, and broken. These were replaced in 1899 with uniform marble headstones like those used in national cemeteries. Despite this improvement to the old Naval Cemetery, there was little room remaining for additional burials by this time and it closed to interments in 1910. In 1926 the Navy disinterred remains from the burial ground and reinterred them at Cypress Hills National Cemetery. The trees were subsequently removed from the property and the site graded to create a playing field. With the assumption that the area no longer contained burials, the Navy reused the grassy space of the former cemetery for a variety of primarily recreational purposes for the next 50 years or so.

Photo of the Naval Cemetery taken in February 1926, a few months before remains and headstones were removed and transferred to Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Brooklyn Times Union)

During the process of transferring the Naval Hospital campus to the City of New York in the 1990s, questions arose about the former Naval Cemetery. Extensive archival and archaeological investigations of the site concluded that the remains of 987 individuals were recorded as being relocated, leaving hundreds of burials unaccounted for and potentially still at the site. Replanted as a meadow, the site is now preserved and reopened to the public in 2016 as the Naval Cemetery Landscape, a park that is part of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. Its design includes a raised walkway that allows visitors to explore the landscape without disturbing the hallowed ground of the former cemetery.

A view of the Naval Cemetery Landscape just after it opened to the public in May 2016 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of the Naval Cemetery Landsapce (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn; Hyde’s 1904 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn 3:1; “Interesting Ceremony,” Long Island Star, Nov 27 1834, “The Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 2, 1875; “G.A.R. Services,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 23, 1887; “Jack Tar’s Burial Ground,” New York Times, Dec 19, 1897; “Heroes’ Last Resting Place,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Oct 24, 1899; “Burial at Naval Cemetery,” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 23, 1900; “Talk of Closing the Old Naval Cemetery,” Brooklyn Times Union, May 16, 1907; “No Mourners for These Sailor Dead,” New York Times, Oct 16, 1910; “Navy Yard Cemetery Plan is Denounced as ‘Ghoulish,’” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 24, 1926; “Capt. Blackwood Outlines Plans to Abandon Cemetery,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Feb 28, 1926; “Exercises to Mark Transfer of Last Body from Naval Cemetery,” The Chat, Oct 16, 1926; Archaeological Evaluation (Stage 1A Documentary Study), Former Naval Station (NAVSTA) New York, Navy Yard Annex Site Brooklyn, New York (Geismar 1996); State of the Research, Naval Hospital Cemetery, Historical Documentation, Naval Station Brooklyn, New York (Geismar 1999); “Prairie Heals an Old Wound at a Former Brooklyn Cemetery,” New York Times, July 11, 2016; Brooklyn Greenway Initiative—Naval Cemetery Landscape

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

Wallabout Cemetery

Wallabout Cemetery is depicted on this 1834 map of Brooklyn

Just north of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn is a site in the middle of the superblocks formed by the vast Whitman-Ingersoll public housing developments. Situated between St. Edwards Street, North Portland Avenue, Auburn Place, and Park Avenue, this site contains the Walt Whitman Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, P.S. 67/Charles A. Dorsey School, and the former Cumberland Hospital—the birthplace of sports greats Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson, now a homeless shelter and medical clinic. In the century before these institutions were erected here, this land was the Wallabout Cemetery, a public burial ground for the citizens of the City of Brooklyn.

In the 1820s, the rapidly growing town (later city) of Brooklyn was running out of places to bury its dead. “Where shall I deposit the remains of my friend,” was a frequent question among the town’s citizens, according to the author of a letter published in the Long Island Star. The letter writer further commented that a survey of the “scanty burying grounds among us” was convincing evidence of the need for a public cemetery to be used by all denominations. In 1824 the town appointed a committee to find a suitable property for this purpose, eventually choosing five acres of farmland within a mile of the village, near Fort Greene and Wallabout Bay.

A diagram of the Wallabout Cemetery allotments from an 1835 newspaper article

At a town meeting in April of 1827, the burial ground committee announced that preparation of the public cemetery was almost completed and that some graves had already been made in the allotments assigned to eight denominations—Reformed Dutch, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Friends, Catholic, Baptist, and Universalist—and a ninth, common lot for use by the town for burial of the poor and those unaffiliated with a church. “The different allotments are separated and ornamented with forest trees,” the committee reported, “the fences and gateway are of solid masonry and the passage and road in front of the passage is paved.” Their report on the cemetery further boasts that “no place in the town is now more eligibly situated and better prepared for the purposes of interment, and that it probably contains space enough for each of our citizens who are journeying to this grave yard for a century to come; and that the work will remain a lasting monument of credit to this town.”

Despite these lofty aspirations, a mere 10 years later the Long Island Star lamented that Wallabout Cemetery “is shamefully neglected by its keepers, if such it have, and the cattle, horses and hogs have been allowed to break over its enclosure.” Upkeep of the public cemetery was an ongoing problem, evidenced by regular newspaper reports of its poor condition. In 1849, burials were disturbed when Canton Street (now St. Edwards Street) was constructed along the cemetery’s west side; a year later, the city’s Board of Health reported that Wallabout Cemetery was “densely crowded with bodies” and recommended its closure.

A notice of the Wallabout Cemetery’s closure by the Brooklyn Board of Health in 1854

The City of Brooklyn finally closed the cemetery in 1854. In 1857 the state legislature  passed a bill authorizing  sale of the land and providing for burial plots for each denomination in the new, large cemeteries that opened in Brooklyn and Queens in the mid-19th century. Churches were responsible for removing the remains from their allotments, a process that took several years. In January 1861, Brooklyn Mayor Samuel S. Powell reported that the last of the remains had been removed from the Wallabout Cemetery and deposited in a plot acquired by the city at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

As with many 19th-century cemetery removals, some graves in the Wallabout Cemetery were missed during the process and encountered during later construction. In 1867 laborers digging for a cellar on the former cemetery site exhumed a coffin containing human remains; the inscription on the coffin plate was John Switzer, who died in June 1846. Many years later, in March 1924, workers for the Brooklyn Edison Company found human bones when excavating for a conduit at St. Edwards Street along what had been the western boundary of the former cemetery. The bones were reportedly “of both sexes, one wrist bone decorated with a bracelet or arm band of crude iron.” Remains of other 19th-century Brooklynites that may have been overlooked during the removal of Wallabout Cemetery possibly rest today beneath the grounds of the public institutions built on the site in the early 20th century.

Wallabout Cemetery in 1855
A 2018 aerial view of the former Wallabout Cemetery site

Sources: Martin’s 1834 Map of Brooklyn, Kings County, Long Island ; Perris’ 1855 Maps of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 20; Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the 81st Session of the Legislature, Begun January 5th and Ended April 19th, 1858, Chap. 232; “Report,” Long Island Star, Jun 16, 1824; [Letter to Editor—Public Cemetery], Long Island Star, Jan 5, 1825; “Town Meeting,” Long Island Star, Apr 5, 1827; “Brooklyn Cemetery,” Long Island Star, Jul, 30, 1835; “The Violated Grave,” Long Island Star, Jan 11, 1838; “Common Council,” Long Island Star, Dec 30, 1839; “Common Council,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 24, 1841; “The Burial Ground, Once More,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 28, 1844; “Burial Grounds,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Oct 24, 1846; “Cemetery at the Wallabout,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 9, 1849; “The Mayor’s Communication of the Wallabout Cemetery,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 16, 1849; “Common Council,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 22, 1850; “Removal of Dead Bodies,” Brooklyn Evening Star, May 22, 1850; “Public Notice,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jul 24, 1854; “Things at Albany,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 20, 1856; “New York Legislature,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 26, 1857; “Notice to Episcopalians,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 10, 1857; “Office of the Commissioners for Sale of the Burial Ground at the Wallabout,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Dec 15, 1857; “Wallabout Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 27, 1858;  “Great Sale of 11th Ward Property,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jun 8, 1858; “Burial of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 17, 1860; “Common Council Proceedings,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 29, 1861; “Human Remains Found,” Commercial Advertiser, Oct 14, 1867; “Thinks Old Skeletons Are From Ancient Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 25, 1924; NYC Then&Now

Barkeloo Cemetery

A view of the Barkeloo Cemetery in 1922 (Standard Union)

In the early 1800s  at least a dozen small burial grounds speckled the landscape of farms and estates across the six historical townships that came to form the modern borough of Brooklyn. These graveyards were set aside on homesteads of families that settled the area during the Dutch colonial period and later, and their owners tried to preserve them for descendants with covenants in wills and deeds that exempted them from property transfers. But as urban development encroached over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and estates were broken up and sold off, most of these families—once prominent in local events and public life—disappeared from the area, as did their ancestral burial grounds. Today only one of these homestead burial grounds survives in Brooklyn—the tiny Barkeloo Cemetery in Bay Ridge.

This detail from an 1811 map shows historic New Utrecht and Yellow Hook, where the Barkeloo homestead was located.

The Barkeloo family home stood on the Shore Road overlooking the Narrows and New York Bay, in the Yellow Hook section of the historic Town of New Utrecht. To the rear of the residence was the family burial plot, situated at what is now the corner of Narrows Avenue and MacKay Place. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Jaques Barkeloo (1747-1813) occupied the farm with his first wife Catharine Suydam (1753-1788), his second wife Maria Bogert (1768-1841), and offspring from both marriages. Jaques Barkeloo was a prominent figure in New Utrecht, serving as Town Supervisor for several years.

In 1794, Jaques Barkeloo recruited the first English-speaking teacher for New Utrecht’s village school; this advertisement for the position appeared in a 1793 newspaper.
Jaques Barkeloo’s obituary, April 14, 1813

In 1834, the old Barkeloo homestead transferred out of the family when Jaques’ widow Maria sold the property. The graveyard was excluded from the deed and the family continued to make burials there until 1848. For many years thereafter, the burial ground was reportedly well cared for, surrounded by a high picket fence that was regularly given a fresh coat of white paint, and the branches of the family contributed annually to a fund for upkeep of the site. But by the end of the 19th century few Barkeloo descendants remained in Bay Ridge and their ancestral burial ground was neglected. In July 1897, the New York World reported that the spot was “unkept,” “surrounded by a dilapidated wooden fence,” and threatened by road construction. Though the site may have contained more than 30 graves, only three tombstones were standing at that time—those of Jaques Barkeloo, his first wife Catharine, and his widow Maria.

The Barkeloo Cemetery is delineated on this 1890 map

The Barkeloo family cemetery continued in a state of disrepair until 1923, when a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution rehabilitated the site, clearing it of rubbish, covering it with new soil, and surrounded it with a hedge. By this time, Jaques Barkeloo’s tombstone had disappeared, but his wives’ tombstones remained, and another—that of Margetta Barkeloo Wardell (1798-1834)—was found buried four and a half feet under dirt during the landscaping work. As part of their efforts to revitalize the site, the DAR touted it as a Revolutionary War cemetery by installing a monument in honor of Harmanus Barkeloo (1745-1788), who in March 1776 was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the New Utrecht Company of the Kings County Militia. Harmanus survived the war but was felled by smallpox when traveling in New Jersey in 1788; sources disagree as to whether he is interred in the Barkeloo Cemetery or at the Old Parsonage Burying Ground in Somerville, New Jersey.

The DAR also installed a monument for Simon Cortelyou (1746-1828), who married Jaques Barkeloo’s widow, Maria, and is believed to be buried next to her in the Barkeloo cemetery. Cortelyou was “one of the many Tories who infested Long Island,” as one local history puts it; a well-known British loyalist, Cortelyou was imprisoned and fined for mistreatment of American prisoners during the Revolution. Given Cortelyou’s history, it’s curious that the DAR chose to memorialize him; however, when dedicating the rehabilitated cemetery, they claimed they had found records (possibly these) showing that Cortelyou gave “vast sums of money for Washington’s army” and that he had been in constant communication with Governor George Clinton during the war. Whatever the case may be regarding Cortelyou’s loyalties during the Revolution, he was a leading community figure in New Utrecht during the early Republic era and seems to have been forgiven any anti-patriotic sins of his past. His obituary, which ran in the New York Spectator on August 15, 1828, reads simply: “Died—On Friday night at the Narrows, L.I., Simon Cortelyou, Esq., an old and respectable inhabitant of that place.”

Since it’s rehabilitation by the DAR in 1923, patriotic groups have frequently held ceremonies at the Barkeloo Cemetery. This July 1926 photo shows members of a local chapter of the VFW preparing to fire volleys over monuments in the cemetery in observance of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (Times Union).

Now tucked behind Xaverian High School, which has occupied the former Barkeloo homestead since the 1950s, the Barkeloo Cemetery links the past of old New Utrecht and the American Revolution with the present Bay Ridge and the modern city that has been built around it. It endures through the efforts of various civic groups and neighborhood caretakers, who’ve protected the site with a wrought-iron fence and keep the grounds nicely maintained with pretty flowers and trimmed shrubbery. A large granite marker installed at the site in 1984 by the Trust of Emma J. Barkuloo and Bay Ridge Historical Society lists 21 people thought to be interred here.

The Barkeloo Cemetery in May 2016 (Mary French)
The Barkeloo Cemetery in May 2016 (Mary French)
A 2012 aerial view of Barkeloo Cemetery and its environs (NYCityMap)

Sources: Eddy’s 1811 Map of the Country Thirty Miles Round the City of New York; Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings Co. Pl 8; The Bergen Family or the Descendants of Hans Hansen Bergen (Bergen 1876), 375; History of Kings Co. (Stiles 1884), 263-266; Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus (Bangs 1912); Cemeteries in Kings and Queens Counties (Eardeley 1916), 1:47-48; Twenty-third Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1918, 285-286; “Wanted,” The Diary, May 22, 1793; “Died,” Long Island Star, Apr 14, 1813; “Sheriff’s Sale,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 13, 1880; “An Old Cemetery to Go,” New York World, Jan 7, 1897; “Ancient Gravestones in Old Bay Ridge,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Jul 6, 1919; “Historic Old Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Nov 21, 1922; “DAR Will Restore Old Burial Plot,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Feb 4, 1923; “Honor Memory of Revolution Heroes Buried in Bay Ridge,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 4, 1923; “Rescuing Brooklyn’s Tiniest Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 16, 1923; “Two Revolutionary War Heroes Made V.F.W. Members,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jul 23, 1926; “Shaft to Be Dedicated at Barkeloo Cemetery,” New York Daily News, May 1, 1935; “New Fence for Barkaloo Cemetery,” Home Reporter & Sunset News, Feb 8, 1980; “Cemetery Revamp,” Brooklyn Graphic, Mar 16, 2010; “How an Ancient Cemetery Survived in Bay Ridge,Hey Ridge, Jun 4, 2018; The Smallest Cemetery in Brooklyn Has a Story, Brooklyn Ink, Oct 24, 2019

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