African American Cemeteries on Long Island

African American Cemeteries on Long Island

Debra Willett

Although there are references to free blacks on Long Island as early as 1657 most of the African Americans on Long Island were enslaved until after the Revolution. However, slavery on Long Island was both less widespread and shorter-lived than that of the South. Day workers, journeymen, or family help were more typical. New York State had enacted legislation to abolish slavery in 1799. The new constitution of the State of New York was enacted in 1821. Under its terms, black males who owned $250 in taxable property were eligible to vote. However, emancipation was neither immediate nor universal. Instead, the terms of the statute called for male slaves to be freed when they attained the age of 28; females, when they reached 25. This resulted in a gradual emancipation that was not complete until 1827, when the last child born into slavery had reached the age of freedom.

After the emancipation, many of the newly freed Blacks established communities of their own around the Island. Some of the early free black communities included the communities of Success and Spinney Hill in the Lake Success/Manhasset area. Freemen also settled in Sag Harbor, New Cassel, Roslyn Heights, Amityville, Glen Cove, Setauket, and Bridgehampton. In the twentieth century, black suburbs were established from east to west along the Island. Many of these, like Gordon Heights and North Amityville, were built especially for a black population. Others evolved into predominantly black communities after World War II, when working-class whites abandoned older areas and settled in the newly constructed, but racially restricted GI Bill communities. At the same time the older communities they were vacating experienced an influx of the emerging African-American homeowner class. By the 1960s, communities such as Hempstead, Freeport, Roosevelt, and Wyandanch had become home to a growing black middle class.

Centuries of spiritual tradition, dating back to their time in Africa, had supported the black community in slavery and in freedom. After the African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in Philadelphia at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the AME church became a strong center for the freemen of Long Island. By the time of the Civil War there were over thirty African-American churches on Long Island, of which twenty-seven were of the AME denomination. In addition, there are several black churches within the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Congregational denominations. Many of these early churches remain strong centers of social and religious life in the African-American communities of Long Island.

Until the 1950s, about 90 percent of all public cemeteries in the U.S. employed a variety of racial restrictions. Until recently, to enter a cemetery was to experience, as a University of Pennsylvania geography professor put it, the “spatial segregation of the American dead.” Even when a religious cemetery was not entirely race restricted, different races were buried in separate parts of the cemetery, with whites usually getting the more attractive plots.

In most cases Long Island followed the de facto cemetery racial segregation that most of America followed until the 1900s. Most African American cemeteries were adjacent to a church that owned and maintained them. Unfortunately, when the communities disappeared so did the cemeteries. The thriving community of Freetown in East Hampton that had its foundation in 1800’s made up of free African Americans and former slaves encompassed a cemetery. This cemetery appears in a 1916 Suffolk County atlas, but by 1930the community and its cemetery had disappeared due to a form of “suburban renewal”. In the few instances of a racially mixed cemetery the African Americans were buried in their own section without markings or a marker that denotes their importance to a specific family. In the McCoun Cemetery on Sandy Hill Rd and Agnes St, Oyster Bay there is a marker that states “Sophia Moore born a Slave.” Most African Americans historically were buried with a marker or a very simple one unless they were part of the military.

Prominent African Americans Buried in Long Island Cemeteries

Flushing Cemetery, Queens County, New York: This cemetery opened in 1853. At the time Queens was mainly rural with a population of less than 20,000 people. The original site was 20 acres, and in 1875 an additional 50 acres was added from an adjacent farm. Flushing Cemetery added a Quaker section in 1860 and was always one of the few non-segregated cemeteries. Several prominent African Americans are buried there. They include musicians Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges and Hazel Scott. World War I pioneer aviator Eugene Bullard and the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. are also interred there.

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (1901-1971):

Louis Armstrong

Armstrong, a trumpeter and singer, was one of the most popular and influential musicians in America in the 20th century.

He was born in New Orleans and had only a 5th grade education. While working for a local family, Armstrong purchased his first cornet. After an arrest, he was placed in a home for boys where he learned how to play and eventually became the leader of the Waif’s Home Brass Band. Armstrong was released in 1914 and found work as an entertainer on Mississippi riverboats with Joseph “King” Oliver.

After World War I, Armstrong migrated to Chicago with Oliver’s band where he eventually formed his own band, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven. In the 1950s and 1960s, Armstrong was an active supporter of the Civil Rights movement. He was an early “cross-over” star appearing on live television. Louis Armstrong’s house in Corona, Queens is now a public museum and Queens College houses a research collection bearing his name.

Johnny Hodges (1906-1970): Cornelius “Johnny” Hodges was a jazz alto sax player and a soloist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Hodges was considered to be second only to the legendary Charlie Parker as a jazz great.

Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. (1865-1953): Powell was an American minister and father to the late Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. He was born in Virginia to formerly enslaved parents. He entered the ministry in 1892 and in 1908 became pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York. He often preached against discrimination and was a member of the NAACP and National Urban League.

John “Dizzy” Gillespie (1917-1993): Gillespie was American trumpet player, bandleader, and singer. He helped make the “bebop” genre of jazz popular. Gillespie influenced many other musicians including Miles Davis and Chuck Mangione. His grave is unmarked.

Eugene Bullard (1894-1961): 

Eugene Bullard

Bullard was an American who flew for French forces as a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps during World War I. He was wounded 3 times and earned a Croix de Guerre. Bullard was known for flying with a pet rhesus monkey named Jimmy. After the war, Bullard remained in Europe and fought during World War II in the French Army. Bullard escaped from occupied France and returned to the U.S. where he settled in Harlem and worked briefly as an interpreter for Louis Armstrong. In 1954 President Charles de Gaulle invited him to Paris to re-light the flame of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. The French government honored Bullard again 1959 by making him a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. When he died Bullard was buried in the uniform of a French Foreign Legionnaire. President Bill Clinton posthumously promoted Bullard to U.S.A.F. 2nd lieutenant.

Hazel Scott: (1920-1989): 

Hazel Scott

Scott was a world-renown pianist and singer known as the “Darling of Café Society” for her interpretations of classical masterpieces. She was born in Trinidad and raised in Harlem where she met jazz greats Fats Waller and Lester Young. While still in high school she hosted her own radio show, broke sales records with her recordings, and soloed at Carnegie Hall. Scott was very vocal about racial discrimination. She refused to play for segregated audiences, would not act in any movie that depicted her in a role she considered demeaning, and demanded the same pay as white actresses. Scott was the first African American performer to have her own national television show, but was blacklisted after she was named as a Communist sympathizer by the House Un-American Activities Committee. She left the U.S. for Europe and did not return and resume her career here until 1967.

Long Island National Cemetery: This cemetery is located in Farmingdale, N.Y. It was established in 1936 because the Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn was almost filled to capacity.

 Sgt. Leander Willett (1895-1956): Willet was born in Oyster Bay, NY and was a member of the World War 1 all-African American 369th Infantry unit known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The unit spent 191 days on the front lines in France, more than any other regiment. 169 men won individual war crosses and two soldiers were the first Americans to received the French Croix de Guerre. Sgt. Willett was wounded in the Argonne Forest offensive when he was bayoneted and gassed.

William Thompson (1927-1950): Thompson served in the Korean Conflict and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. On August 6, 1950, Thompson’s unit was hit with a surprise attack at night. He set-up his machine gun in the path of the enemy combatants and pinned them down to allow his platoon to withdraw and re-group in a more favorable position. Although hit with grenade and bullet fragments, Thompson remained at his post until he was killed by a grenade.

John Coltrane (1926-1967):  Coltrane was born in North Carolina and served in the U.S. Navy where he was stationed in the Manana Barracks in Pearl Harbor where he unofficially played with Navy band. Because the band was all-white Coltrane could not be listed as a member and was referred to as a guest performer. During his career, Coltrane played with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, McCoy Tyner, and Charlie Parker. His former home in Philadelphia was designated a National Historic Landmark and his last home in Dix Hills N.Y. is on the National Register of Historic Places. Posthumously Coltrane was awarded a lifetime Grammy Achievement Award, and the U.S. Post office issued a commemorative stamp. His wife, Alice Coltrane (1937-2007), also was a musician and composer.

Henry Dumas (1934-1968): Dumas was a writer and poet. Her was born in Arkansas but grew up in Harlem and attended both C.U.N.Y and Rutgers University. After serving in the Air Force, he took a position at Southern Illinois University. Dumas was shoot and killed by a New York City Transit Policeman in the 125th St. and Lenox Ave. subway station. His death was ruled a case of mistaken identity. 

Capt. Lewis Cunningham Broadus (1877-1961): Broadus started his military life as a Buffalo Soldier at Fort Custer, Montana. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Capt. Broadus saw action in Cuba at the Battle of El Caney. Broadus requested a promotion based in his service, but was denied because African-Americans were not permitted to be commissioned officers. Broadus saw action in the Philippines and was awarded a Certificate of Merit by President Theodore Roosevelt for bravery. During WWI, Broadus was stationed in Hawaii along with several thousand African-American recruits, and his request for promotion was honored. He completed officer’s training at the Reserves Office Training Camp at Fort Des Moines Iowa.

Holy Rood Cemetery Holy Rood Cemetery: This cemetery is located in Westbury, New York and is part of the Rockville Centre Diocese. People buried at Holy Rood include Commissioner William J Willett (1931-2003) of Glen Cove N.Y. native. Willett served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean Conflict. After the war, Willett joined the Nassau County police force and was one of the first African-American “beat” cops in Nassau County. In 2000 Willett was named Police Commissioner of Nassau County, one of the largest police departments in the United States.

Calverton National Cemetery: Calverton is located in eastern Long Island between the towns of Manorville and Riverhead in Suffolk County. Calverton National Cemetery features a memorial pathway lined with a variety of memorials that honor America’s veterans. As of 2009, there are 23 memorials here, most commemorating soldiers of 20th century wars. African American service men buried at Calverton include Isaac Woodard (1919-1992). Sergeant Woodard served in the Pacific Theater of World War II and was honorably discharged in 1946. In uniform, he boarded a bus for home and, enroute, was brutally attacked and blinded. Woodard was one of many black servicemen who experienced discrimination and violence, but his case sparked a national outcry. The NAACP sought justice, musicians immortalized the travesty, and Orson Welles unmasked Woodard’s attacker – police chief Lynwood Shull – on his radio show. No charges were filed until President Harry Truman ordered an investigation, but an all-white jury acquitted Shull in less than a half hour. In response, Truman established a Civil Rights Commission and desegregated the military.

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