Gethsemane Cemetery, located west of the Hackensack River in southwest Bergen County, NJ, was founded in 1860 as a “burial ground for the colored population of the Village of Hackensack.” In 1901 it was turned over to seven African American trustees and incorporated as Gethsemane Cemetery.
They incorporated it as the Gethsemane Cemetery Association, reports Arnold Brown, the cemetery’s historian. Prior to the African-American trusteeship, it was known as the Hackensack Colored Cemetery, the Colored Cemetery at Hackensack, San Hill, Sand Hill, Moonachie Colored Cemetery, Monarchie Colored Cemetery and Little Ferry Free Colored Cemetery.
The graves of over 500 people have been documented, including that of Elizabeth Dulfer who was born a slave c.1790, freed in 1822, and died in 1880. She was one of the area’swealthiest entrepreneurs, having created a successful clay business from land she owned along the Hackensack River. Two Civil War veterans, Peter Billings and Silas M. Carpenter, were also buried here. Both served in the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Regiment – an infantry unit for African-Americans in the Union Army.
Over the years less than 50 gravestones have survived. The materials used for gravestones include marble, granite, slate and sandstone, according to Janet Strom, historian for the county’s Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs. The last documented burial there was in 1924. Laborers at brickyards, porters, farmers, domestics, barbers and beauticians are among those buried at the cemetery.
Historian Arnold Brown relates that evidence of West African burial practices was discovered at businessman Samuel Porter’s family plot. Specifically, terracotta pipes were found suggesting a link to Congo traditions.
“What they would do is put broken terracotta clay pipes in the ground so the deceased could communicate with the upper world,” says Bronw. “To have maintained an African custom over all these years in the burial is amazing. Mr. Porter could afford a granite stone for a gravestone, but he reverted back to his African roots and came up with the pipes.”
Gethsemane Cemetery figured prominently in the controversy surrounding the burial of Samuel Bass, sexton of Hackensack’s First Baptist Church. When he died on January 22, 1884, his family wanted to bury him in the Hackensack Cemetery. Because he was black the request was denied and he was buried in Gethsemane. N.J. Governor Leon Abbett protested the denial: “The Legislature should see that the civil and political rights of all men, whether white or black are protected. It ought not be tolerated in this State that a corporation whose existence depends on the Legislature’s will.should be permitted to make a distinction between a white man and a black man.” In March 1884 New Jersey’s “Negro Burial Bill” was passed.
Bass’ body was later moved to Philadelphia.
In 1985 Bergen County acquired the neglected cemetery and dedicated it as a County Historic Site. It was entered into the N.J. and National Registers of Historic Places in 1994 due to the significant role it played in the enactment of N.J.’s early civil rights legislation as well as containing evidence of West African burial customs.
In 2003, the County celebrated the dedication of new meditation areas and historic panels that tell the story of the historic cemetery and list the names of 515 people who were buried here.
Restoration is currently ongoing, says historian Janet Strom.
“You never preserve something and walk away,” she said. “Preservation is everyday.”