A cemetery holding Black bodies is in disrepair

Stephon Johnson | 5/11/2017, 11:45 a.m.
Driving through the Richmond Town neighborhood of Staten Island on an uncharacteristically warm spring day might bring you toward Frederick ...
Grave of blues singer Mamie Smith in Frederick Douglass Memorial Park Stephon Johnson

Driving through the Richmond Town neighborhood of Staten Island on an uncharacteristically warm spring day might bring you toward Frederick Douglass Memorial Park. Last Friday, like any other day, the front entrance to the African-American cemetery was open, but not because it was day time and a family had just finished burying a loved one.

The cemetery’s front entrance was open because it hasn’t been repaired in a while.

That’s the beginning of what the AmNews encountered when given a tour of the cemetery by Friends of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, Inc. CEO and plot owner Patricia Willis.

The AmNews saw untreated grass, gravestones mashed together because of weather and land shifts, gravestones stuck between trees, barely put together graves, unpaved and decrepit roads around the premises, uneven land with dips, hills and holes that could lead to injuries and sunken graves.

The cemetery holds the graves of some of the most famous and prominent Black public figures of the 20th century, including Negro League baseball players Elias “Country Brown” Bryant and King Solomon “Sol” White, blues singer Mamie Smith, jazz trumpeter Thomas James Ladnier, tap dancer/Bill “Bonjangles” Robinson rival Eddie Rector, Commandment Keepers of the Living God founder Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and prominent Harlem figures.

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Frederick Douglass Memorial Park

“Back then, churches used to buy cemetery plots to bury their parishioners in,” said Willis, whose parents, aunts and uncles are buried at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park. “There are a couple of those buried there. A pastor from Mount Moriah Baptist Church is in there. That’s what it was for a long time.”

Someone who only saw a picture of the Frederick Douglass cenotaph would think the rest of the cemetery was well kept. But that’s not the case. There are only three maintenance workers for the 17-acre cemetery, there are no computer records of those who are buried and it’s currently being operated by a court-appointed receiver.

A decade ago, former cemetery director Dorothea Morton King was removed from her position via court order after she allegedly embezzled $667,593 from the maintenance fund. She was also told to pay back the money. Willis was skeptical of the process.

“How many Black women do you know get caught embezzling over $600,000 and don’t get arrested or go to jail?” asked Willis. “Do you know any?” Willis said she asked authorities if they knew where King went after the court order because she wasn’t paying them back. “They claim they didn’t know where she was,” said Willis.

According to documents, the State of New York listed not only King as a defendant in the lawsuit but also Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, Inc.

“They had a board of directors there, but they pretty much died off,” said Willis. “And as they went, they did not replace anybody. So by the time she got caught with this stuff, there was no board of directors. They claim that they put the cemetery down as a defendant because it’s a nonprofit corporation, but there was no board.”