Monday, February 7, 2011

Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens Touting Itself as Final Resting Place for Many Black Celebrities by Lisa L. Colangelo - NY Daily News

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Flags adorn graves at Cypress Hills Cemetery.

A graveyard might seem an unlikely place to celebrate the illustrious lives of local heroes.
But the operators of Cypress Hills Cemetery say its picturesque and sprawling grounds - the final resting place for more than a dozen prominent African-Americans - is the perfect destination for the commemoration of Black History Month.
There are baseball legend Jackie Robinson, renowned musician and composer Eubie Blake, as well as writer and historian Arturo Schomburg.
But the cemetery also the final resting place of lesser-known 19th-century trailblazers, such as James McCune Smith, an abolitionist who was also the first African-American to obtain a medical degree in the United States, and Charlotte Ray, the first female African-American lawyer in the nation.
"These are some very important people who have really contributed to the history of America," said Patrick Russo, office manager at Cypress Hills Cemetery, which straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border.
Cemetery officials are planning to celebrate this rich history and raise awareness with a new colorful map and booklet that highlights its famous denizens.
It comes on the heels of a book published last year that provides an in-depth look at the cemetery, its history and unique monuments.
"Green-Wood and Woodlawn are viewed as the big boys of the cemetery world, but there are so many others not as well-known," said Stephen Duer, one of the authors of "Images of America: Cypress Hills Cemetery."
The cemetery is also unique because unlike many other burial grounds where African-Americans graves are found on designated lots, they are scattered through its 210 acres.
Duer and co-author Allan Smith worked with cemetery officials to identify more than 75 notable people of all backgrounds.
"That's only through some surface research," said Duer. "It's like a treasure hunt."
Another notable African-American buried at Cypress Hills is Wallace Turnage, a former slave whose path to freedom was detailed in the recent book "A Slave No More" by David Blight, a Yale University professor.
In September, cemetery officials joined historians and family members to honor McCune Smith with a new headstone. Some of his descendants had learned about their historic connection only in recent years.
Greta Blau, who is white, discovered her ancestry when she learned about McCune Smith during a African-American studies class at Hunter College. His was a familiar name included in a family Bible.
"I am so proud to have that kind of legacy," said Antoinette Martignoni, Blau's 92-year-old grandmother who is the great-granddaughter of McCune Smith. "Imagine sharing those genes! It's been very exciting."
Russo said he hopes more people see Cypress Hills, and all cemeteries, as places for learning.
"They are a great educational tool for Black History Month and the rest of the year," said Russo. "There are so many important people here and in every cemetery. You just have to investigate."
Cypress Hills cemetery is at 833 Jamaica Ave. For more information on the cemetery and its publications, call (718) 277-2900 or check its website at