Published: May 27, 2024, 1:40 p.m.

By Paul Liotta | pliotta@siadvance.com

Frederick Douglass Memorial Park in Oakwood. Friday, April 12, 2024. (Staten Island Advance/Jan Somma-Hammel)

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A nearly 100-year-old Oakwood cemetery originally built for African Americans took another step toward landmark status this week after the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission held a hearing Tuesday.

Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, at the corner of Amboy Road and Montreal Avenue, looks poised for landmark status as multiple people testified in support during the hearing, including Councilwoman Kamillah Hanks (D-North Shore), who chairs the Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Sitings, and Disposition.

“Frederick Douglass Memorial Park…is more than a cemetery. It is a profound testament to the enduring spirit and historical significance of New York City’s African American community,” Hanks said. “Landmark status will provide the necessary support and resources to maintain and enhance the park allowing it to continue serving as a place of reflection, remembrance and celebration of African American Heritage.”

Hanks’ local colleagues, Council Minority Leader Joseph Borelli (R-South Shore) and Councilman David Carr (R-Mid-Island), have also offered their support to the cemetery’s landmark push.

During a recent tour of the grounds, Frederick Douglass Memorial Park Board President Brandon Stradford and members Debbie-Ann Paige and Lisa Wallace said the landmark designation would help them better maintain the cemetery.

While rich in historic significance, the memorial park still functions as a modern, 14.88-acre cemetery, accommodating burials a few times each week for people of all races and denominations. It has also been used for the Richmond County Public Administrator’s Burial Program, which provides dignified burials to descendants who have no families to handle them.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Stradford told the Landmarks Preservation Commission about the importance of the cemetery to the African American community and to its current stewards, in particular. Most members of the board have family members interred there.

“The place is really special to us. It’s not just something of interest, something that we said ‘this has fallen down, oh let’s grab a hold of that,’” he said. “It’s part of my legacy, our legacy.”

STEEPED IN HISTORY

Rodney Dade, a Harlem funeral director, founded the cemetery in 1933 after seeing the bigotry Black people faced in the five boroughs when burying their loved ones.

Cemeteries around the city often segregated Black dead people to undesirable areas on their grounds, and forced their families through various indignities, Mary Ann-Hurley, who presented Frederick Douglass Memorial Park’s landmark case to Landmarks Preservation Commission in March, said at the time.

Founders named the park for Frederick Douglass, the 19th century abolitionist and statesman born into slavery, and began burying people in 1935. Douglass is buried in Rochester.

As one of the few cemeteries entirely open to Black people, Frederick Douglass Memorial Park accepted a host of prominent figures, including blues singer Mamie Smith, Negro League baseball players Elias “Country Brown” Bryant and King Solomon “Sol” White, Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, Founder of Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Harlem and Joanna Berry Shields, a Founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black sorority.

RECOVERING FROM NEGLECT

During that recent tour, signs of care, like flowers and other mementos, could be seen at individual graves around the park, but decades of neglect preceding the current board have left the site in need of work.

In 2008, the Advance/SILive.com reported that Frederick Douglass Memorial Park was in danger of becoming an abandoned cemetery after years of mismanagement.

The state Division of Cemeteries, which regulates nonsectarian cemeteries like Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, first raised alarm bells about management there in 1999.

In 2005, the state courts removed a former director of the cemetery, issued a $667,593 judgment against her, and put the cemetery into a receivership.

That receivership wasn’t without controversy after the third individual to take on the role tore down historic gates at the park entrance, leading to a lawsuit that was eventually dismissed.

Today, the stewards of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park want to move on from the past few decades, and hope securing a landmark status can help them do so.

COMMISSION HEARS ‘MOVING TESTIMONY’

Landmarks Preservation Commission Vice Chair Frederick Bland, serves on the board of another city cemetery with landmark status, and said it’s been vital in helping them maintain their grounds.

For Landmark Preservation Commissioner Angie Master, the only Staten Islander serving on the Commission, Fredrick Douglass Memorial Park would be the first local site to receive the status since her term began last year.

“I’m just so happy with the community support and how the cemetery folks have come out here and express themselves so articulately, and it’s such a deserving individual landmark,” she said.

While the Commission has yet to schedule a final vote for whether Frederick Douglass Memorial Park will receive its landmark status, it seems to be trending in the right direction.

Commission Chair Sarah Carroll noted as she closed the portion of the meeting related to the Memorial Park that Master’s comments may have been out of place — typically, commissioners wait until their votes to offer their explicit support — but that they were understood given the cause.

“We’re not technically commenting today but I think the testimony was so moving it sort of warranted those feelings and thoughts,” she said.