A Cemetery Tour in Brooklyn Honors Black History Month

Articles and photos by Victoria Merlino

The little tour trolley rattled up one of the many winding roads in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, its engine disturbing the afternoon hush. At the crest of a hill, Jeff Richman, Green-Wood’s historian and the tour’s guide, tapped at his phone. “We try to make these tours as multimedia as possible,” he said as peppy jazz began to play. “We do not have a lot of jazz greats here,” said Richman, as an introduction to the grave of the Cedar Walton, a jazz pianist and composer who played in the Art Blakey band.

“When I say not a lot, he’s pretty much the only one we have,” he continued as his audience chuckled.

This is Richman’s design for Green-Wood’s two-hour tour honoring Black History Month: a little humorous, a lot educational. Tracing through the 478 acres of Green-Wood, southwest of Prospect Park, he hopes to shed light on the lives of New York City’s prominent African-Americans and abolitionists who have been eclipsed by time. The tour has been offered each February since Richman created it four years ago.

Green-Wood contains seven graves now known  as the “freedom lots” (one, above), which were sold around 1850 for $5 each to permit the inexpensive burial of African Americans.

Opened in 1838 to relieve overcrowded cemeteries in the city, Green-Wood was one of America’s first “rural” cemeteries, and has come to be the final resting place of many white New Yorkers with power and prestige. With residents like composer Leonard Bernstein; Horace Greeley, the founder and publisher of The New York Tribune, and the 19th century political leader William Magear “Boss” Tweed, the cemetery can easily leave the impression that it is a place of the white and wealthy.

Richman is trying to push beyond the “very white, male” origins of the cemetery, which has been active since 1838.

“It’s important to make the point that we have more than that, that we have, I think, almost half  of the people here are in single graves, are in public lots. And so it wasn’t certainly, just wealthy people and it was also not Christians, white Christians, exclusively,” he said.

The two-hour tour honoring Black History Month has been offered each February for the last four years ago.

Tour stops include the graves of abolitionists like John Brown’s associate John Cooke, prominent African Americans like Jeremiah Hamilton — the only black Wall Street broker in the 19th century and the only black millionaire at the time in New York — and pioneers like Samuel Cornish, founder of Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper in the United States.

The tombstones range from short and thick to tall and proud, and one that has even fallen over. Some are so inconspicuous that without the tour as a guide, one would walk right past them.

Each year the tour is a little different, said Richman, because every year he discovers more about the people buried in Green-Wood.

The tour stops at one of the most famous graves in the cemetery, that of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the graffiti artist and painter who died in 1988 at age 28. Squat and small, unlike some of the more towering and elaborate tombstones on the tour, it is being adorned with small trinkets and paintbrushes left by admirers. Often, said Richman, the grave is vandalized by graffiti, which the cemetery removes.

One of the newest stops on the tour is an area called the freedom lots: seven spots started around 1850 that were sold for $5 and were intended for the inexpensive burial of African Americans. While Green-Wood has not yet figured out how graves were distributed, church organizations are believed to have been involved. Green-Wood has been slowly digging up tombstones that have been lost to dirt and time to try and uncover just who was buried in the lots.

However, these lots do not mean that Green-Wood was segregated. As seen from the placement of Cornish’s grave, for example, which is in an area where whites are interred, Richman believes that Green-Wood accepted all those who could pay for a lot, regardless of race.

Opened in 1838 to relieve overcrowded cemeteries in the city, Green-Wood was one of America’s first “rural” cemeteries.

Deborah Shapiro, an archivist at the Smithsonian Museum and a participant on the tour, was impressed that Richman was able to find these “hidden stories” of the graves, even though the cemetery may not have explicit records of them.

“I think it’s important to uncover these stories that weren’t traditionally … a part of the narrative,” she said. Emily Greenspan, another participant on the tour and a member of the Green-Wood Historic Fund, noted Richman’s ability to dig for information and the historical value of the tour. “Just about everything that he said was something that I didn’t know, and that’s good.”

At the end of the tour, the trolley rumbled back toward Green-Wood’s front gate. As the passengers disembarked, many were left wondering what new stories—and historical figures—will emerge by next year’s Black History Month.