Gethsemane Cemetery—A Small African American Burial Ground with National Historical Significance
By the Bergen County Department of Parks, Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs (DCHA); Additions, updates, and Resources section by Michelle D. Novak, MI
Printed in the GSBC’s The Archivist, Volume 50, Number 1, February 2023. The GSBC and The Archivist Editor would like to thank the County of Bergen for allowing us to revisit this article, update some of the information, and share it with the public.
Gethsemane Cemetery, 35 Summit Place, Little Ferry, New Jersey
A Bergen County Historic Site. New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office Register of Historic Places (nj.gov/dep/hpo/1identify/nrsr_lists/BERGEN.pdf, no. 549); National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places (no. 94000330, npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/94000330).
Gethsemane Cemetery, which dates from 1819, is located on a sandy, one-acre hill west of the Hackensack River in northern Little Ferry along Liberty (Moonachie) Road. Historically, this area has been called “Sand Hill,” and the burial ground was sometimes called the “San” or the “Sand Hill Cemetery.” It was also known as the Moonachie Colored Cemetery or the Hackensack Colored Cemetery.
It’s not known when the first interment was made here. A 17 November 1860 deed of sale to three prominent white Hackensack residents states that this acre of land was to be used as a “cemetery for the colored population of the Village of Hackensack….”
On 21 March 1901 the Gethsemane Cemetery Association was incorporated, and the “Colored Cemetery” passed from white to black trusteeship. Seven trustees were appointed: William Hire, William Jackson, Thomas See, Thomas H. Tiebout, James P. Westcomb, George W. White, and Samuel Winfield. The cemetery’s official name then became Gethsemane Cemetery.
Burials continued in Gethsemane until the 1920s but over time the cemetery was neglected and vandalized. Stones were stolen or broken, and it became a dumping ground for cars, garbage, and all matter of items. When its very existence was threatened with destruction through development, members of the African American community began the fight to save it.
By 1985, title passed to Bergen County which saved it from the proposed development. Under the direction of the Bergen County Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs (DCHA), the county hired archaeologist Dr. Joan Geismar who performed and supervised in-depth research, analysis, and restoration work. The staff of the DCHA and volunteers of the African American Studies Committee of the Bergen County Historical Society conducted a comprehensive survey and inventory of the site. In 1989 Dr. Geismar conducted non-intrusive Ground Penetrating Radar surveys which determined the locations and approximate number of burials. In 1992 the DCHA published Dr. Geismar’s resulting research in the book: Gethsemane Cemetery in Death and Life (see “Resources”).
Above-Left: A detail from the Bergen County Historic Sites Survey, Cemetery Inventory, Little Ferry (1991–1992), Gethsemane Cemetery [BCHA RG6-05-25a].
Right: An aerial view of Gethsemane Cemetery, 1984 [BCHA RG6-13-05-02].
[Images courtesy of the Bergen County History Archives (BCHA), Bergen County Department of Parks, Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs.]
Although fewer than 50 gravestones are left, 27 with inscriptions, the burials of more than 500 people have been documented. It is known that African American tradition places great importance on burial. But the presence or lack of gravestones at Gethsemane does not necessarily reflect the economic or social status of the deceased or their families.
What is significant is the terra-cotta pipe grave-markers that were found here. This was the first evidence found this far north in the U.S. of West African burial customs, brought here by African slaves, that were more commonly found in southern U.S. cemeteries. In addition to connecting the world of the living and the dead, these clay pipes were water-related—an example of African symbolism.
In 1994 Gethsemane Cemetery was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the Nation’s historic buildings and sites worthy of preservation, because of the of evidence found here of West African burial customs, the importance of people buried here, and the significant role Gethsemane played in the enactment of New Jersey’s early Civil Rights legislation.
Above-Left: Survey work at Gethsemane Cemetery, 1985 [BCHA RG6-13-05-07]. Above-Right: Documentation of clay and glass pipes grave-markers discovered during archaeological investigations—the first evidence of West African burial customs discovered this far North in the U.S. [BCHA RG6-13-05-09]. [Images courtesy of the Bergen County History Archives (BCHA), Bergen County Department of Parks, Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs.]
Gethsemane Burial Records
Few written records have been found for burials in Gethsemane dating from before the 1870s. There were most likely earlier interments, but their names remain unknown. The first documented burial was that of Cornelia Smith, a 10-month-old [infant] who died on 13 August 1866. The two most common family names of those buried here are Thompson, with 21 documented burials, and Jackson, with 22. The last documented burial, that of Louis Swinney, occurred on 14 December 1924.
Records from the local Ricardo Funeral Home, which was responsible for many Gethsemane burials beginning in 1885, are now located in the DCHA’s Bergen County History Archives (see “Resources”). These records provided much of the information on who is buried here.
The Community and Some Notable Interments
From its beginning, Gethsemane served as the burial ground for the local African American population. Social life of the local community centered around two African American churches: Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, founded in 1864; and Mt. Olive Baptist Church, founded in 1889. There are descendants of families buried in Gethsemane still associated with these Hackensack congregations.
At least two Civil War U.S. Army veterans are buried at Gethsemane: Private Peter H. Billings and Private Silas M. Carpenter. Both men served in the Union Army in the Twenty-Ninth (Colored) Connecticut Volunteer Regiment. Unfortunately, the Billing’s tombstone was stolen in the 1980s and Carpenter’s tombstone has never been found. The tombstone for William Robinson who served on the U.S.S. Savannah and died in 1889, still stands in the cemetery today and was restored in 2007 after being vandalized and broken.
Three Gethsemane Cemetery grave markers photographed in 1985 and showing the state of disrepair. From left: The markers for William D. Blemus [RG6-13-05-04], Elizabeth [Dickerson Campbell Sutliff] Dulfer (1790-1880) [BCHA RG6-13-05-05], and [Private] Peter H. Billings (1827–1902) [BCHA RG6-13-05-06]. Unfortunately, Private Billings’ marker was stolen shortly after the photographs were taken and its location is not known. [Images courtesy of the Bergen County History Archives (BCHA), Bergen County Department of Parks, Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs.]
Above-Left and Center: The 1863 Volunteer Enlistment for Peter H. Billings, born in Hackensack (www.fold3.com/image/263052356). A muster card from the compiled military service records for Silas M. Carpenter of Greenwich, CT (www.fold3.com/image/263177322). Both men served in the Union Army in the Twenty-Ninth (Colored) Connecticut Volunteer Regiment. [Source: NARA M1824. Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers (U.S. Civil War)…, via Fold3.com.] Above-Right: The 1890 U.S. Census Veterans Schedule showing Silas M. Carpenter living in Ridgefield Township, Little Ferry post office (www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/8667/images/NJM123_41-0040). [Special Schedules of the Eleventh Census (1890), National Archives Microfilm Publication M123, 118 rolls; via Ancestry.com.]
Elizabeth Dulfer’s restored tombstone. [Image courtesy of Bergen County Department of Parks, Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs.]
One of the most elaborate tombstones that remains is that for Elizabeth Dickerson Campbell Sutliff Dulfer—one of Bergen County’s most remarkable residents. According to extensive research on her life by historian Dr. Arnold Brown, Elizabeth was born into slavery in 1790 on the William Campbell farm which was located on the banks of the Hackensack River in the Township of New Barbadoes. (At this time, Bergen County was more than twice as large as it is today and had an enslaved African population of 2,301—greater than that of any other New Jersey county.) Elizabeth, also called Betty, was enslaved on this farm for the first 32 years of her life. She was also known as Elizabeth Campbell indicating the use of the surname of her enslaver, a custom of the day.
In 1822 she was granted her freedom by Deed of Manumission. (This deed is in the original Records of Manumission 1804–1841 in the DCHA’s Bergen County History Archives.) Dated 17 June 1822, it says in part: “Know all men by These presents, that William Campbell of the Township of New Barbadoes in the County of Bergen and State of New Jersey do by this presents for good and valuable consideration fully and absolutely manumit, make free and set at liberty my female slave named Betty…”
We don’t know how long Betty (Elizabeth) stayed in New Jersey after gaining her freedom, but sometime prior to 1830 she married Alexander Sutliff, a New York City teacher who was from the island of Jamaica and lived in the City. By 1847 she had moved back to New Barbadoes with her husband.
During the nineteenth century, the clay pits found along the banks of the Hackensack River in the area of Little Ferry became a resource for the area’s thriving brick and pottery industries. Among those who had the foresight to tap into these natural resources was Elizabeth Sutliff. In 1847 while still living with her husband in NYC, she began purchasing land in this area. This was the beginning of her evolution into one of the area’s most successful businesswomen and landholders.
In February 2014 the six original property deeds—which show Elizabeth purchased the land in her own name—were discovered in the DCHA Archives. The deeds show that from March 1847 to October 1848 she purchased an 87-acre farm here with clay-bearing land for more than $1,300. She was still living in NYC when she made the first four land purchases. By the fifth, dated November 31, 1847, she was a resident of the Township of New Barbadoes. The property descriptions on the deeds show that the land bordered the Wm. Campbell farm where she had lived 32 years as a slave. After spending most of her life in that area, she obviously knew what the land was like and most likely had family, friends, and contacts in the area, too. What is certain is that Elizabeth possessed the vision and business sense to see the opportunity that owning and working this land would have for her.
Her husband, Alexander Sutliff, died sometime between 1851 and 1855. In 1859 she married John Dulfer, a white man born in Holland, when she was 69 and he was 36.
An exceptionally astute businesswoman her whole life, Elizabeth continued to buy land up to 1878. Robust and healthy most of her life, she died suddenly at home in Little Ferry on Sunday, 11 January 1880, at the age of 90. She was buried on 13 January at Gethsemane Cemetery.
The 17 June 1822 Manumission record freeing Elizabeth “female slave Betty” from the farm of William Campbell of the Township of New Barbadoes. [FamilySearch, www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/36926, Item 4, pages 143–144.]
The 25 March 1847 deed—the first of six land transactions—for purchase of land in New Barbadoes by Elizabeth Sutliff [Bergen County History Archives (BCHA), Bergen County Department of Parks, Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs.]
The “Negro Burial Bill”
Gethsemane Cemetery figured prominently in the controversy surrounding the burial of Samuel Bass—which was the impetus for State legislation called the “Negro” or “Colored Burial Bill” by the newspapers of the time.
Bass was a black man and sexton of Hackensack’s First Baptist Church who died on 22 January 1884. On 31 January 1884 The Hackensack Republican reported that Sexton Bass was denied burial in the all-white Hackensack Cemetery. Instead, his family buried him in Gethsemane.
Public opinion about Hackensack Cemetery’s denial to inter Sexton Bass was heated and the news reached beyond the local area. Besides the local Bergen County Democrat and The Hackensack Republican newspapers, several articles also appeared in The New York Times and The New York Globe.
This situation was brought before the New Jersey State Legislature by the state’s newly-elected governor, Leon Abbett. He protested the denial of burial and in a strong statement to the State Legislature said: “The regulation that refuses a Christian burial to the body of a deceased citizen upon the ground of color is not, in my judgment, a reasonable regulation, and therefore the church has the right to make the interment... 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, and whose property is exempt from taxation because of its religious uses, should be permitted to make a distinction between a white man and a black man.”
Two months later, in March 1884, the legislation was passed—ending the segregation of burial places in the state.
“Legislation in New-Jersey,” The New York Times, 7 February 1884 (nytimes.com/1884/02/07/archives/legislation-in-newjersey-the-colored-burial-bill-and-senator-vails.html). Surprisingly, the article continued that “More important than this…” was the adjacent legislation for railroads—and although a action to the State constitution is significant, this early civil rights win quietly affected the lives of many millions of State residents through to today.
Restoration and Re-dedication
After the last burials at Gethsemane Cemetery in the mid-1920s, the cemetery fell into disrepair and by the mid-1980s most of the headstones were damaged by the elements, intentionally vandalized, or missing. Ownership of the property was transferred to the Bergen County Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs in 1985 and the division oversees historic and archaeological research and restoration projects at the site. Discoveries made during these excavations led to applications for State and National historic site registrations and restoration projects at the site have been ongoing.
In 2003 the County celebrated Gethsemane Cemetery with the dedication of new meditation areas containing nine interpretive panels that tell the cemetery’s story. Three of these panels contain the names of 515 people buried here. More than 300 people, including historians and dignitaries from local, county and state government, attended the joyous and moving dedication—the most honored guests that October afternoon were the descendants of those buried in Gethsemane Cemetery.
A recent photo of Gethsemane Cemetery showing the restored gravestone for veteran Henry Jones. [Image courtesy of the Bergen County Department of Parks, Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs.]
Resources—Visiting Gethsemane Cemetery In-Person and Online
Gethsemane Cemetery is accessible by appointment only by contacting the Bergen County DCHA (see “Resources”).
For the past decade, Arnold E. Brown, PhD, has led tours of Gethsemane annually on Juneteenth. Dr. Brown, one of New Jersey’s most respected authorities on African American culture, was involved with some of the early work in identifying Gethsemane as a site of historic importance, and his family has lived in Bergen County since the 1700s. (See “Resources” for a walk-through of the cemetery with Dr. Brown and the ArcGIS StoryMap website for additional videos.)
Recently, as part of a Special Project Grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission and the Bergen County Historic Preservation Trust Fund, The DCHS developed an ArcGIS (geographic information system) StoryMap of Gethsemane Cemetery. This interactive website allows visitors near and far to pay their respects to those interred at the cemetery from the convenience of their computer, provides information and context about the experiences of Bergen County’s African American population at the turn of the twentieth century, and acts as a teaching tool for educators to build on in their classrooms. Additional studies are underway to re-frame and expand the Bergen County’s interpretation of the site.
The Bergen County Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs and ACME Heritage Consultants created an ArcGIS StoryMap of Gethsemane Cemetery (https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/147d84d76043447d8542114a3509ee17) which allows visitors to pay their respects to those interred at the cemetery and provides information about this important historic site.
The StoryMap was funded in part by a Special Project Grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Department of State, and the Bergen County Historic Preservation Trust Fund, a part of the Bergen County Open Space, Recreation, Floodplain Protection, Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund.
Location and Access
35 Summit Place, off Rte. 46, Little Ferry, NJ 07643
The cemetery is open by appointment only and often on Juneteenth (19 June, annually). For information about site access, contact Archivist Elizabeth Shepard at the Bergen County Department of Parks, Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs (co.bergen.nj.us), at 201-336-7267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bergen County History Archives (BCHA)
Records from the William Ricardo Funeral Home (RG6-13-03, Gethsemane Cemetery Ricardo Burial Records, 1895–1932, bergencountyhistory.pastperfectonline.com/archive/4CE4EE5D-2019-4B4B-B3DB-454174671425) and research by the Gethsemane Cemetery Association were vital to reconstructing interments at the cemetery.
For more information about BCHA’s collections, visit bergencountyhistory.pastperfectonline.com, or contact Archivist Elizabeth Shepard at 201-336-7267 or email@example.com. (Note: The GSBC will be publishing an overview of the BCHA collections beginning in the next issue.)
ArcGIS StoryMap of Gethsemane Cemetery
Includes an interactive map of interments; information about Hackensack’s African American communities; and information about ongoing research about the cemetery, restoration, archeology, and interpretation. [Funded in part by a Special Project Grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission and the Bergen County Historic Preservation Trust Fund.]
Video Presentations + Guides
[See also the ArcGIS StoryMap, for more videos, https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/147d84d76043447d8542114a3509ee17]
Bergen County Parks System (2022). A Walk through Gethsemane Cemetery with Dr. Arnold Brown, youtu.be/wGgjhPWIVE8
Bergen County Department of Parks (2010). Guide to Gethsemane grave markers, yumpu.com/en/document/view/11814438/guide-to-gethsemane-grave-markers-bergen-county
Brown, Arnold E. [PhD] (1986). Elizabeth Sutliff Dulfer Story [research paper]. Bergen County History Archives, RG10-007, http://bergencountyhistory.pastperfectonline.com/archive/2CA192FD-00F7-4E24-A780-458925429158
Geismar, Joan H., PhD (1992). Gethsemane Cemetery in Death and Life. County of Bergen: Hackensack, NJ,
worldcat.org/title/1230292534; and available at Bergen County libraries, https://catalog.bccls.org/polaris/search/title.aspx?ctx=1.1033.0.0.7&pos=1&cn=286721
Neumann, William (2021). “Gethsemane Cemetery: A Historic African American Burial Site in Little Ferry, NJ.” Preservation New Jersey, preservationnj.org/gethsemane-cemetery
FindAGrave for Gethsemane Cemetery, findagrave.com/cemetery/1593984/gethsemane-cemetery. Note that FindAGrave is not incomplete. See the ArcGIS StoryMap for some notable biographies and the following DCHA list, which contains 515 documented interments.
Top-Left: Gethsemane Cemetery Dedication Ceremony, 2003 (RG6-13-05-18, Bergen County History Archives, Bergen County Department of Parks, Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs). Top-Right: A view of the cemetery’s meditation areas and information panels. (Photo courtesy of Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD, via Wikimedia Commons.)
Bottom-Row, Left-to-Right: Images from the 2021 Juneteenth event at Gethsemane Cemetery. The Bergen County Historical Society’s “blue marker” panel for Gethsemane Cemetery. Visitors wearing tees with “1619,” the year enslaved Africans first arrived to the Colony of Virginia. Dr. Arnold Brown conducting a tour of the cemetery. Visitors reading plaques installed by the Bergen County Department of Parks which convey information about the cemetery as well as the names of individuals documented as being buried there. (Images courtesy of William Neumann and Preservation New Jersey, preservationnj.org/gethsemane-cemetery.)