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.
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.
In 1825, a group of members of Shearith Israel—the only Jewish congregation in New York City at that time—broke off to form B’nai Jeshurun (Sons of Israel). Most of the 32 founding members of B’nai Jeshurun were immigrants from England, Holland, Germany and Poland, and they incorporated as New York’s first Ashkenazic congregation, holding services according to the German and Polish ritual rather than the Sephardic mode of worship practiced by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Congregation Shearith Israel. The new congregation established its synagogue at 119 Elm Street, near Canal Street, in a building previously owned by the First Coloured Presbyterian Church. Elm Street was B’nai Jeshurun’s home for 25 years; by the time they moved to a new synagogue in 1850, the congregation had grown to 150 members. Four synagogues followed Elm Street, their locations reflecting the northward move of the city’s Jewish population. The congregation’s present home is at 88th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.
When B’nai Jeshurun was founded, the congregation’s property included not only its synagogue on Elm Street but also its burial ground, which was acquired in 1826, even before the house of worship had been established. This land, consisting of four lots situated on 32nd Street near 7th Avenue—then on the outskirts of the city—was purchased for the sum of $600. Soon after the acquisition of the burial ground, a metaher house, which served as a chapel and place for washing and preparing bodies, was established at the site. Some of the congregation’s founding members were buried there, including Daniel Jackson, who signed B’nai Jeshurun’s charter of incorporation and was an original trustee.
The 32nd Street Cemetery served as B’nai Jeshurun’s burial ground until 1851, when a City ordinance banned burials below 86th Street. That year, B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel together purchased land along the Brooklyn/Queens border near Cypress Hills to form Beth Olom Cemetery. Once B’nai Jeshurun’s burial ground at Beth Olom was incorporated, it’s 32nd Street Cemetery gradually deteriorated. Surrounding tenements and factories made it increasingly difficult to keep the old cemetery in proper condition; The Jewish Messenger provided an account of it in 1875:
One of the few old Jewish cemeteries which are still within the limits of the City of New York is that belonging to the B’nai Jeshurun congregation. It is situated in Thirty-second Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, being within several doors of the latter avenue. It has a frontage on the street of about thirty feet, and a depth of one hundred feet, being bounded on the west by some old and rickety wooden shanties, used for stables and other purposes, and on the east and north by a large furniture manufactory. Two years ago, the writer was informed, the ground was in an orderly and nice condition, the place being slightly embellished with flowers, giving it a pretty, if not a handsome, appearance, and one thoroughly in keeping with its sanctity. Up to the period aforesaid, probably no rubbish had been allowed to accumulate . . .
At present the cemetery is in a sad state . . . Bits of glass, old and broken bottles, shavings from the furniture factory, pieces of iron wire and hoops, sticks of wood, gravel stones covered with tar, and tarred roofing material, blown from the roofs of contiguous buildings, and other rubbish unnecessary to enumerate, are strewed upon the earth in all directions. In those spots where debris has not chanced to accumulate, the ground, except in two or three instances, is in a rough and uncared for condition . . . There are about fifty tombstones still standing, most of which are in a good state of preservation . . . Here is a list of some of the persons buried in this cemetery, copied from the portion of the tombstones that is decipherable, with the date of death: Salomon Van Praag, 1829; Esther, wife of Joseph Levy, 1845; Judah, son of T. A. Meyer, 1845; Isaac Moses Cohen Peixotto; Samuel Barnett, 1845; J. M. Dyer, 1842; Benjamin F. Lewin, 1842; Moses H. Lowenstein, 1841; Leopold E. Lewin, 1837; Daniel Jackson, 1841; Michael Davis, 1841; Henry M. Lyons, 1845; Marcus Josephi, 1847; Simon Saroni, 1847; Joseph A. Michael, 1851; Rebecka Maria Jackson, 1847; Samuel Goldsmith, 1851; Hannah S., daughter of Sampson and Rebecka Levy, 1848; Henry Joseph, 1834; Levy B. Boruck; Isaac I. Salomon, 1845.
In 1887, B’nai Jeshurun sold the 32nd Street Cemetery for $20,000 and moved the bodies to Beth Olom. Today the Hotel Pennsylvania, built in 1919, stands on the 32nd Street Cemetery site that was the original burial place of the City’s oldest Ashkenazic congregation.
Sources: A Century of Judaism in New York: B’nai Jeshurun, 1825-1925 (I. Goldstein 1930); “A History of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, 1825-2005” (S. Brawarsky 2005); “Jewish City Cemeteries. I.,” The Jewish Messenger Jul 2, 1875, 5; “Bodies to be Removed,” New York Times Feb 23, 1887, 8; “B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery,” The Jewish Messenger, Apr 1, 1887, 2; Colton’s 1836 Map of the City and County of New-York; Perris’ 1854 Maps of the City of New York Vol 7 Pl 93: Bromley’s 1920 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Manhattan Pl 21; NYCityMap
Late in November, 1926, I became aware that during the course of some excavations for the 207th Street Yard of the Rapid Transit System of New York City an obliterated burial ground was discovered between 212th Street and 213th Street, near the Harlem River. This district is in the northernmost part of Manhattan and within the present city limits of New York. Upon investigation by the Board of Transportation, it was learned that this site was the former Nagel, or Nagle, Cemetery. Altogether, 417 bodies were disinterred . . . Arrangements had been made by the Board of Transportation to reinter these bodies in the Woodlawn Cemetery. Toward their close I became informed of these operations and, with the permission of the Board of Transportation, was able to measure those skeletons still left unburied, provided my investigations did not interfere with the work of the contractors. Only twenty skeletons were available. The number of measurements was limited by the time allotted. Photographs were impossible, for I had the bad luck of having to work in the rain. (Shapiro 1930)
When the remains from an old cemetery in northern Manhattan were removed in 1926, anthropologist Harry Shapiro had a chance to collect data on some skeletons of colonial New Yorkers so that their physical characteristics could be compared with those of their counterparts in 17th century London (he found they were essentially the same). The cemetery was of interest because it was a family burial ground for the Nagels, Dyckmans, and others who settled in northern Manhattan during the second half of the 17th century, and it was said to have graves dating back to 1664. In an 1806 deed, William Nagel asserted that the burial ground, which was on the Nagel farm, “has been made use for that purpose for ages past for sole us as a burial ground for the benefit of my family connections, relations, and friends.” In his will two years later, William Nagel expressly excepts the plot from his own holdings, and provides that it shall have “free access from the road to the same for interments.”
The cemetery, which in 1926 was bounded by 212th and 213th streets and 9th and 10th avenues, was a plot of about one acre, on the crown of a gently sloping knoll. It was originally about 200 yards west of the Nagel homestead, known as the Century House, and was reached from Broadway by a little lane bordered with apple trees. The southern end of the cemetery, which had extended south of 212th Street, was taken in 1908 when the street was opened and a number of bodies were moved and placed in another section of the cemetery. Earlier Colonial burials were in the eastern section of the burial ground in rows about nine feet apart, running due north and south, and marked only by small, unmarked blocks of local rock, set at head and foot of each grave. The western portion of the ground was filled with graves marked with the names of local families, including the Dyckmans, Vermilyes, Ryers, and Hadleys.
Prior to 1926, a number of bodies were removed from the Nagel burial ground to other cemeteries, most notably members of the Dyckman family that were moved to Oakland Cemetery in Yonkers. When the Nagel cemetery was removed by the NYC Board of Transportation, 417 bodies were transferred to a 1,500 square foot plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and marked with an octagonal granite monument, 9 feet high and 6 feet wide, with the inscription “About this stone rest the remains of 417, among them early settlers and soldiers of the Colonial and National Wars, interred 1664-1908, in Nagel Cemetery, West 212th Street, Manhattan, the site of which was covered by a vast public improvement. Reinterred here, 1926-1927, by the city of New York.” The Nagel cemetery property was incorporated into what is today the MTA’s 207th Street Subway Yards.
Sources: Colton’s 1836Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Bromley’s 1916 Atlas of the Borough of ManhattanPl 188; “Who Owns Cemetery?” New-York Tribune Mar 3, 1909 p.1; Washington Heights, Manhattan, its eventful past (Bolton 1924), 202-203; “Old Burial Ground in Subway’s Path,” New York Times Feb 13, 1927 p. 22; “Old New Yorkers: A Series of Crania from the Nagel Burying Ground, New York City” (Shapiro 1930) American Journal of Physical Anthropology 14(3):379-404; “City to Honor Dead Moved for Subway,” New York Times Jul 11 1932 p.15; Burials in the Dyckman-Nagel Burial Ground (Haacker 1954), 1-11; “The Old Nagle Cemetery,” My Inwood, May 9, 2013; NYCityMap.
The New York Marble Cemetery and New York City Marble Cemetery are the city’s two oldest non-sectarian cemeteries. Perpetually confused with one another since they were created in the early 1830s, these private cemeteries were formed by businessmen seeking to provide alternatives to churchyard and public graveyard interments after burials were prohibited in lower Manhattan by city ordinances in the 1820s. Featuring underground vaults that are the size of small rooms and made of Tuckahoe marble, the two Marble cemeteries were built in the area of Second Avenue between Second and Third streets in the East Village, a neighborhood that developers hoped would soon become a fashionable residential locale.
The two cemeteries were initially popular and members of a number of distinguished families were entombed there; however, by the 1870s rural cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx were preferred and the Marble cemeteries primarily were used as storage vaults for bodies awaiting burial at these places. Sporadic entombments continued in the Marble cemeteries until the 1930s; both were designated NYC Landmarks in 1969 and now are open to the public on special occasions.
St. Mark’s Church stands on the site of the chapel built in 1660 by Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor of Dutch New Amsterdam, and its grounds are all that remain of Stuyvesant’s vast “bouwerie,” or farm. Stuyvesant was interred in the family vault beneath the chapel when he died in 1672. During the 18th century, the chapel fell into a state of dilapidation, until little remained except the foundation and the Stuyvesant family vault beneath. In 1793, Stuyvesant’s great-grandson, Peter Stuyvesant IV, donated the chapel property to the Episcopal Church with the stipulation that a new church be erected. Originally intended to be a chapel of Trinity Parish, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery was completed in 1799 as the first New York City Episcopal parish separate from Trinity. The Stuyvesant vault is still present under the east wall of the church; it was closed permanently when the last family member was interred there in 1953.
In addition to the Stuyvesant vault, St. Mark’s had two burial sites attached to its church during the first half of the 19th century—the yards surrounding the church, which were used exclusively for vault interments, and a cemetery further east along 11th Street for conventional graves. Peter Stuyvesant IV donated a 242 x 190 plot just east of 2nd Avenue, between 11th and 12th Streets, for the cemetery in 1803. One of the stipulations in Stuyvesant’s grant of the plot was that any of his present or former slaves and their children have the right to be interred in the burial ground free of charge. An unknown number of individuals were buried at St. Mark’s Cemetery until burials there were prohibited in 1851. The remains from this graveyard were removed to Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn in 1864 and residences were built on the site.
The first underground burial vaults were built in the grounds adjoining the church in 1807. In these tombs lie the remains of many important individuals and members of prominent and wealthy families of 19th century New York. Among those interred here are Mayor Philip Hone, English governor Henry Sloughter, and Daniel D. Tompkins, governor of New York and U.S. vice-president under James Monroe. Millionaire A.T. Stewart was interred in a vault in the east yard in 1876; two years later his remains were stolen and reportedly held for ransom. The suspicious events surrounding the theft and rumors of ransom demands were well publicized for several years following the crime. The case was never officially resolved, although some stories hold that Stewart’s widow negotiated the return of the remains in 1881 and reinterred them elsewhere.
As the neighborhood surrounding St. Mark’s changed from upper class townhouses to tenement slums during the first half of the 20th century, the churchyard fell into disrepair. The Preservation Youth Project restored it for community use in the 1970s, creating a playground in the east yard and a quiet garden in the west yard. Many of the flat vault markers can still be seen among the newer pavements.
The Church of St. Luke-in-the-Fields, on Hudson Street between Christopher and Barrow, was founded in 1820 by a group of prominent residents of Greenwich Village who were desirous of an Episcopal church to serve their community. Construction of their church, on land donated to the congregation by Trinity Church, began in 1821 and was completed the following year. When the church was constructed, the congregation had about 100 burial vaults built beneath the yard adjacent to the church. Only the flat, inscribed tomb coverings were visible on the surface to indicate the vaults below the ground. Around 700 of St. Luke’s parishioners were buried in the vaults until interments there were discontinued in 1852.
In 1891, the congregation of St. Luke’s moved to a new church in Harlem and their Greenwich Village church became a chapel of Trinity Church. As part of the transfer of St. Luke’s to Trinity, the remains were removed from the burial vaults around the church. Some descendants transferred their relatives to family lots at other cemeteries, and many were reinterred at a large plot that St. Luke’s purchased at Mount Hope Cemetery in Westchester County. Others were moved to plots at Trinity Cemetery in upper Manhattan and at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Clement Clarke Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and one of the founders of St. Luke-in-the-Fields, was originally interred in one of the vaults at St. Luke’s; his body was moved to Trinity Cemetery in 1889.
When the last of the removals were made from St. Luke’s in December 1890, the New York Herald described the old vaults:
They are underground rooms, arched and walled with brick. A slab bearing the epitaph is placed over the head of the stone stairway which leads to the surface . . . The coffins were piled one on top of the other in all the vaults. The best preserved coffins were those which had been in the ground for the longest period. Most of them were made of black mahogany. The more modern coffins, with but few exceptions, had turned into dust, while some of those which have been in the ground for over sixty years are as solid as when they were built.
Dozens of the empty vaults were discovered under the topsoil in 1955, when workmen were in the process of constructing a new school, playground, and gardens on the grounds of St. Luke’s. Most of the marble tomb covers were in place over the steps leading down into the brick vaults, and their inscriptions could still be read. They were covered over again when the property was landscaped. In 1976, St. Luke-in-the-Fields again became an independent parish of the Episcopal Church. The old tombs, where hundreds of early residents of Greenwich Village once reposed, are likely still present under its grounds.