Gethsemane Cemetery might simply be described as the final resting place for the remains of 500 African Americans. But, as with many cemeteries, this “finality of life” is just the beginning to a rich history.
Located in a small but busy part of southwest Bergen County, this 1 acre of land was first deeded in 1860 to three white Hackensack citizens who stated it would be “a cemetery for the colored population of the Village of Hackensack. The first documented burial was in 1866. At times it was known as the “Moonachie Colored Cemetery” (after a nearby road), the “Hackensack Colored Cemetery” and “San” or “Sand Hill Cemetery” (a name for the surrounding area.) On the 21st of March 1901 and with the passing of white ownership to a black trusteeship of seven it was respectfully renamed Gethsemane Cemetery.
People interred in Gethsemane demonstrate important aspects of the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Visiting the graveside of Elizabeth Dulfer reveals her incredible journey through life. Elizabeth was born a slave in 1790, freed in 1822 and then acquired some of the largest brick making clay deposits in the area. Many of the Gethsemane burials reflect an association with laborers who worked in these local clay pits. She rose to become one of the wealthiest land owners in Bergen County. During her lifetime she even assisted the organization of a smaller African-American cemetery in Bergenfield, NJ. She lived to be 90 years old and was interred in 1880.
Samuel Bass, a prominent sextant with the Hackensack First Baptist Church, intended to be buried in the all white Hackensack Cemetery. Because of his color, his last wish was denied and was rested in Gethsemane. In January 1884, the denial became a heated controversy locally and nationally which enraged New Jersey Governor Leon Abbett to declare that “The regulation that refuses a Christian burial to the body of a deceased citizen upon the ground of color is not…a reasonable regulation” Two months later the New Jersey Legislature enacted he “Negro Burial Bill” that desegregated the state’s cemeteries. Discovering a marker for William Robinson, it simply states he served on the USS Savannah during the Civil War. And although they have no grave markers, two other Civil War veterans Silas M. Carpenter and Peter M. Billings served with honor with the Tenth Corps’ 29th (Colored) Connecticut Volunteer Regiment. There are so many stories revealed within Gethsemane!
Preserving a sacred African Americans burial place
Arnold E. Brown is of one New Jersey’s most respected authorities on African American culture. His family has lived in Bergen County since the 18th Century and his experience has helped him drive extensive research on the occupants of Gethsemane Cemetery. As an attorney in1980, he became involved when a local title searcher suggested checking into an open piece of property that might contain African Americans graves. Arnold realized the significance of the property and recognized a need to rescue it from eminent redevelopment. Mr. Brown initiated talks with Bergen County for help.
On each Juneteenth, during the past decade (excluding 2020), Arnold Brown has led personal tours of Gethsemane Cemetery to commemorate the Jubilee. However, if you can’t attend, Bergen County has produced a wonderful interview with Arnold Brown speaking about Gethsemane Cemetery. You can see it online at: https://vimeo.com/515557436
Some of the ideas Arnold hopes people will take away from a visit to Gethsemane are the unique contributions from the lives the people memorialized therein. He also believes the cemetery demonstrates fundamental West African burial customs and explains the African concepts of four cycles of the life or “moments of the sun” and why afterlife caretakers would scatter the dead’s personal belongings around the grave and how erecting east facing memorials would facilitate the spirit’s rising rebirth with the coming of the new sun. Arnold says “the sanctity of life is important and how you treat someone when they are no longer here and have gone beyond. You got to have respect for lives lived” Arnold Brown is planning a comprehensive book on African American history throughout Bergen County.
The last burial in Gethsemane in the 1920’s began a gradual period of neglect and vandalism. Finding garbage along with broken markers and stolen headstones was sadly common for concerned neighbors. After Arnold Brown’s persistence in 1985 Bergen County took possession and secured Gethsemane Cemetery. Extensive field work and research began that included surface archeology, gravestone conservation and repair by expert cemetery mason Bob Carpenter, non-invasive Ground Penetrating Radar and documentation of of the cemetery’s residents. Much of this was (and still is) guided by Bergen County’s Department of Parks / Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs (DCHA) This culminated in a 1992 report prepared by Joan H. Geismar, Ph.D. known as Gethsemane Cemetery in Death and Life: A Bergen County Historic Site in an Archaeologist Perspective that fed into a successful 1994 listing on the NJ State and National Registers of Historic Places. Since that time, much has been done to continue the research. To access a PDF of the 1994 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places search with terms: “gethsemane, cemetery, national, register” or click here
Recently Bergen County’s Division Director Cynthia Forster has been preparing for another round of Ground Penetrating Radar to improve site and grave mapping. When visiting Gethsemane there are handouts, guides and four meditation plaques situated around the cemetery displaying contextual information on all aspects regarding the African Americans resting close by. A Guide by Cell link is displayed at the cemetery’s entrance “The DCHA is always ready to work with groups and single researchers.” Cynthia also notes that if you are interested in research an/or a free tour by appointment of this secured, historic site you should contact : Bergen County Historic Sites at 201-336-7267 or at www.co.bergen.nj.us/parks. The cemetery entrance is on Summit Place off Rte. 46 in Little Ferry, NJ 07643.
William “Billy” Neumann is a Preservation New Jersey Board of Director and chairs the Marketing Committee. He is the former Chairperson of Bergen County’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board and led Rutherford’s HPC for five years. He has authored two local history books, several National Register nominations and presents talks, walks and demonstrations on history, historic preservation, commercial photography and beekeeping.