Tag Archives: churchyards

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. (Google)

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 (Marie Bonafonte)

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
Monument at the Bethel A.M.E. plot, Mount Hope Cemetery
A 2018 aerial view shows the former site of the Bethel A.M.E. Church and Cemetery on Unionport Road in the East Bronx

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

West Farms Soldier Cemetery

A view of the West Farms Cemetery and the Presbyterian church building, ca. 1885 (MCNY)

A keen-eyed observer passing by one of the buildings of the Lambert Houses, a massive, low-income residential complex near the Bronx Zoo, will find an odd detail. Bolted to the 1970s-era, orange-brick structure at the corner of Boston Road and East 180th Street is a mangled metal sign, its faded hand-painted lettering offering guidance to “West Farms Soldier Cemetery, Bronx Landmark, 1 Block West.”  How and why this marker was placed on one of the megastructures at this troubled complex is a mystery—and one that will be lost as the Lambert Houses are currently being demolished and redeveloped. In any case, this curious public notice offers a delightful link between the modern, urban Bronx neighborhood of West Farms and the old rural village that is its namesake.

Located at the corner of East 180th Street and Bryant Avenue, the burial ground known today as West Farms Soldier Cemetery is an oasis of calm near the edge of the Lambert Houses. Although 40 veterans of four wars—the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World War I—are interred here, the soldiers are only a part of a long a varied history of this cemetery, which served as a churchyard and a community cemetery beginning in the early 19th century.  

In 1814, the trustees of the First Presbyterian Church of West Farms—then a “flourishing little village” of about 300 inhabitants, located 12 miles from New York City at the head of the Bronx River—acquired two parcels of land on Samuel Street (now 180th Street) to establish a church. The church, surrounded by a graveyard, was built in 1815 atop a hill on the north side of Samuel Street, about 200 feet west of the old Boston Post Road. The trustees designated part of the second parcel of land, located on the south side of Samuel Street, “a graveyard for strangers and black slaves.”

Detail from an 1868 map showing properties on Samuel Street (today’s 180th Street) owned by the West Farms Presbyterian Church

As West Farms began to grow in the 1820s, John Butler acquired a parcel on the east side of the Presbyterian churchyard to establish a larger cemetery to serve the West Farms community. Butler subdivided this parcel into burial lots that he sold directly to buyers. Though originally two separate burial grounds, over time Butler’s cemetery and the adjoining Presbyterian graveyard came to be seen as one site. By the early 20th century, some 200 individuals had been buried in the West Farms Cemetery, including 35 Civil War veterans. Most distinguished of these is Captain William J. Rasberry, who led his men into the Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia, and died there, in 1864. The Rasberry family lived along what is today East 178th Street in West Farms.

West Farms Presbyterian Church and the adjoining cemetery are depicted in this 1901 map

The area surrounding West Farms Cemetery had developed into a bustling urban community by the early 1900s. With the changing times, the West Farms Presbyterian Church abandoned its hilltop sanctuary and moved to a new building constructed on the church-owned lot on the opposite side of 180th Street. This building, Beck Memorial Presbyterian Church, still stands today.  The original church building was used as a gymnasium and recreation hall until it was destroyed by fire in 1948. 

Grading and widening of streets in West Farms during the first decade of the 20th century disturbed graves in the cemetery next to the old Presbyterian church building as well as in the forgotten paupers’ burial ground on the south side of East 180th Street. When the public learned that soldiers graves were being neglected and desecrated in the West Farms Cemetery, a committee was founded to protect the site. The committee re-dedicated the cemetery as the West Farms Soldier Cemetery in 1910, and raised funds to improve the property, erect a Civil War monument, and have soldiers’ remains transferred to West Farms from burial grounds at Fort Schuyler and from the Potter’s Field at Hart Island. The final interment at the West Farms Cemetery, of World War I veteran Valeriano J. Tolosa, took place in 1929. The city assumed possession of the cemetery in 1954 and designated it a historic landmark in 1967.  Today the roughly one-acre site, surrounded by an eight-foot-high iron fence, is under the care of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

West Farms Cemetery after the Civil War soldier’s monument was dedicated in 1910; the tombstone of William Rasberry can be seen to the right and below the soldier monument (NYPL)
A view of the Civil War monument at West Farms Cemetery, June 2014. The bronze statue that stood atop the monument was stolen in 1976 (Mary French)
Stones marking veterans’ graves at the West Farms Cemetery, June 2014 (Mary French)
The Sun Apr 27 1882 p1 copy
West Farms Cemetery was a churchyard and community cemetery as well as a burial place for veterans. “Queer Old Miss Hullin” was interred here in 1882 (The Sun, Apr 27, 1882)
2018 Aerial
A 2018 aerial view of the West Farms cemetery. Part of the Lambert Houses complex is located just to the east; Beck Memorial Presbyterian Church is opposite the cemetery on 180th St

View more photos of West Farms Soldier Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 13; Hyde’s 1901 Atlas of the borough of the Bronx, Vol. 2, Pl. 8; The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912), 281, 392; The Borough of the Bronx…(Cook 1913), 143-145; “Description of West-Farms,” Daily National Intelligencer, Apr 28, 1813;“Workmen Unearth Skeletons,” New York Times, Jun 19, 1900; “Harlem and the Bronx,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 26, 1900; “Dug Up Human Bones,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 16, 1900; “Harlem and the Bronx,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 14, 1900; “Cutting Through a Cemetery,” New York Times, Sep 16, 1900; “Robbed of His Grave,” New York Times, Mar 5, 1909; “Veterans at Unveiling,” New York Tribune, May 30, 1910; “Take Soldier Dead from Pauper Field,” New York Times, May 29, 1916; “134 Year Old Building of Bronx Church Burns,” New York Times, Jan 11, 1948; “City Will Acquire Soldier Cemetery,” New York Times, May 6, 1954; Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1967); Archaeological Monitoring at the Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery (Parsons Engineering 2000); “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 267-280

Spring Street Presbyterian Church Burial Vaults

An 1852 map showing the Spring Street Presbyterian Church

Many of New York City’s cemeteries have been bulldozed for development over the years, the graves and the stories of the people buried in them lost to collective memory. In the last few decades, though, discovery of historic burial grounds during construction activities has provided opportunities to learn about segments of society that have made important contributions to the city’s history, but generally are overlooked in the historical narrative. The 1991 discovery of remains at the African Burial Ground site in Lower Manhattan revealed a wealth of information about life and death for Africans in colonial New York and became an enormously important site for the modern African American community, underscoring and commemorating their deep historical presence in the city and the nation. Recovery of remains from the site of one the Quarantine cemeteries on Staten Island in 2003 renewed interest in the history of the Quarantine Grounds and the link they provide to New York City’s history as a gateway for millions of immigrants. Another of the city’s “hidden histories” was uncovered with finding the burial vaults of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church, a congregation with a unique history of class and race inclusiveness.

Remains found in one of the burial vaults during excavation in 2006 (Meade 2007)

In December 2006, human bones were found in backhoe fill when a parking lot at the southeast corner of Spring Street and Varick Street in Manhattan was being torn up for construction of a 46-story luxury hotel, Trump SoHo (recently renamed The Dominick). Research determined that the remains were of individuals interred in underground burial vaults associated with the Spring Street Presbyterian Church that stood on the site from 1811 until 1966, when the church was demolished and the parking lot was paved over the location. Archaeological excavations at the site recovered the remains of approximately 200 individuals, as well as artifacts including engraved metal coffin plates, coffin wood and nails, shroud pins, ceramics, coins, fabric, and a few personal items, including ribbons, buttons, hair combs, shoes, a whistle, and a gold wedding band. The human remains and artifacts were sent to Syracuse University where they were studied by anthropologists from 2007 until 2014, when they reinterred at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

A view of Spring Street Presbyterian Church in 1927 (NYPL)

The burial vaults at the Spring Street Presbyterian Church were four underground rooms, two made of limestone and two of brick, that were built along the southeast side of the church building and used between 1820 and 1846. During the nearly 200 years that had passed since the vaults were used, the wood coffins stacked within them had rotted and collapsed, leaving behind the piles of bones and artifacts that were unearthed during the excavation. Like the long-forgotten vaults, the distinctive history of Spring Street Presbyterian Church and its congregants had been obscured until it came to light again when the vaults were rediscovered. During the time period the burial vaults were in use, the church was a radical abolitionist congregation situated in a working-class neighborhood and its congregants were individuals of multiple classes and races (the church began admitting African Americans into full membership in 1820, seven years before slavery was abolished in New York).

Diagram showing location of the burial vaults within the Spring Street Church property (Mooney et al 2008)
Severe bowing in leg bones of one of the Spring Street children, evidence of rickets (Ellis 2014)

The Spring Street remains—the only large collection of human remains recovered in the city that date to the first half of the 19th century—allowed anthropologists to gain an understanding of what life was like for these people in rapidly urbanizing New York. The remains told of variations in health (for example, 75 of the burials were children, and half of them suffered from rickets) and morphological features of the bone, teeth, and hair indicated significant differences in ancestry, suggesting that people from diverse backgrounds were interred together in the vaults at Spring Street. Equally important as the scientific finds, the discovery established a connection to and chance to commemorate New Yorkers who were in the forefront of early battles against slavery and were vanguards in the fight for civil rights.

Silver coffin plate of Oswald Williams Roe, one of the children interred in the burial vaults (Mooney et al 2008)
A 2016 aerial view showing the Trump SoHo on the former Spring Street Church site (nyc.gov)
Monument marking the reburial site at Greenwood Cemetery (David Pultz)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Spring Street Archaeology Project (Syracuse University); Archaeological Investigations of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church Cemetery (Mooney et al 2008); Topic Intensive Documentary Study: Spring Street Presbyterian Church (Meade 2007); The Children of Spring Street: The Remains of Childhood in a Nineteenth Century Abolitionist Congregation (Ellis 2014, PhD Dissertation); David Pultz, personal communication, June 19 2014; “Trump SoHo Project Is on Hold After Discovery of Human Remains,” New York Sun, Dec 13 2006; “Burial Vaults Inspire a Celebration of a Church Opposed to Slavery,” New York Times, Oct. 8 2014; “Return from Obscurity: NY’s Spring Street Presbyterian Church,” News—Presbyterian Church USA, Nov 10 2014

African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Cemetery

Mother AME Zion Church situated on the southwest corner of Leonard and Church streets, 1852 (Dripps 1852)

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.

Newspaper notice announcing removal of remains from the AME Zion Church, 1864

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.

A marker embedded in the sidewalk at the corner of Leonard and Church streets denotes the sites history, March 2018 (Mary French)
Former site of Mother Zion’s original church and burial ground
The AME Zion grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 4: 522-523, 525; “To Whom It May Concern [Notice],” New-York Daily Tribune Apr 21, 1864, 2; The Cypress Hills Cemetery, 1863 catalog & list of lot holders]; Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1993); African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Britannica.com); Cypress Hills Cemetery Map, May 2014; OpenStreetMap

St. Raymond’s Churchyard

The small yard in front of the Church of St. Raymond, with its handful of gravestones, is a vestige of a much larger burial ground that was the first Catholic cemetery in the Bronx.  Located at the corner of Castle Hill Avenue and East Tremont Avenue, the parish was founded in 1842 when an acre of land was obtained by Reverend John Hughes to create a Catholic church and cemetery in what was then the village of Westchester.  In 1847 the cemetery was enlarged by the purchase of another acre and this site was in constant use as the parish burial ground until a new, larger St. Raymond’s Cemetery was established about two miles southeast of the church, in 1875.  Most of the graves from the churchyard, which extended along the west side of the church as well as to the rear, likely were transferred to St. Raymond’s Cemetery as the parish complex grew throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Location of St. Raymond’s Catholic parish complex at East Tremont Ave and Castle Hill Ave in the Bronx.
Location of St. Raymond’s Catholic parish complex at East Tremont Ave and Castle Hill Ave in the Bronx (NYCityMap)
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1868.
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1868 (Beers 1868)
A view of St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1905 (NYPL)
A view of St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1905 (NYPL)
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1913.
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1913 (Bromley 1913)
View of gravestones in St. Raymond’s churchyard, October 2010.
View of gravestones in St. Raymond’s churchyard, October 2010 (Mary French)

View more photos of St. Raymond’s Churchyard.

Sources:  History of Westchester County. . . (J. Scharf 1886), 814; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1, 377; St. Raymond’s Cemetery; NYCityMap; Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 16; Bromley’s 1913 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of the Bronx, Vol 3, Pl 26.