Hackensack Cemetery Segregation Story
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger William Perlman/The Star-Ledger Nineteenth-century ledgers from Woodland Cemetery in Newark kept track of "colored" burials, with blacks often interred in a separate section.
He was a beloved church sexton in Bergen County, a free black man whose grateful parishioners wanted to bury him locally when he died in 1884.
They were in for a rude awakening: the all-white Hackensack Cemetery wouldn’t allow it. Although almost 20 years had passed since the end of the Civil War, some things — like which races were buried where — hadn’t changed.
The refusal to inter the body of Samuel Bass created such a controversy, however, that even the governor got involved. As a result, New Jersey lawmakers passed the Negro Burial Bill, making it a crime for a cemetery to refuse burial to anyone because of color. The penalty was a fine up to $500 — the modern equivalent of $12,000.
The state’s cemeteries were then integrated — on paper at least.
“The 1880s was a time in which New Jersey responded to the ideals of the Reconstruction Era. It was when they passed school desegregation laws — laws that went unenforced until the 1940s,” said Clement Price, Rutgers University historian and head of its Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, “That cemetery law may have been influenced by the same sentiments.”
Yet New Jersey avoided the burial controversies of the Civil Rights era, when funerals elsewhere became political flashpoints.
When three civil rights workers were discovered murdered and buried in a Mississippi earthen dam in 1964, for example, the widow of Mickey Schwerner was thwarted in her desire to have her husband, who was white, buried next to his black colleague, James Chaney.
No white undertaker would transport Schwerner’s body to Chaney’s black cemetery, and the local black undertaker feared retaliation by authorities if he honored her request, writes historian Suzanne Smith in a history of African-American funeral practices.
In New Jersey, long considered a border state for its dip below the Mason-Dixon line, unwritten or unspoken cemetery policies were a bit more complicated.
In the farming communities of the south counties, African-American burials often took place in black-only cemeteries.
In the northern counties, the racial divide was more subtle.
Just as school integration was initially half-hearted, so too was the integration of graveyards, as cemetery owners found ways around the law.
One common technique was to allow black burials, but to restrict them in a separate area of the cemetery.
In the sprawling Woodland Cemetery in Newark, for example, African-American bodies were for many years interred in the “Colored” section, said Mary Lish, a volunteer who has painstakingly computerized records of the 35-acre cemetery’s 82,000 burials.
In later years, cemetery management started referring to the section along Rose Terrace as the “Colonial” section — and said that’s what the “Col.” abbreviation in burial records stood for.
“I don’t care what anyone says, it stood for ‘Colored,’ ” Lish said. During her research she became familiar with names of prominent African-American undertakers, and from that was able to deduce the race of the interred.
As always, money talked, and there were burials of well-to-do black businessmen in other, nicer sections of the cemetery as well.
Black funerals took place in the Colonial section until the 1960s, when the cemetery became fully integrated, said Lish.
Edith Churchman, whose family has operated a funeral home in Newark for over a century, recalls handling burials there back then. Funeral home workers would get a card designating the “Col” section as the location of that day’s plot. “When you questioned them, they’d say it was the Colonial Section — but it was the ‘colored section,’ ” she said.
At Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, there are similar examples of the North’s more subtle handling of race. The cemetery, opened in 1853, was never rigidly divided into black and white sections.
Elsewhere in the cemetery, a section donated by the cemetery for Civil War veterans — still marked by a cannon — was integrated in the 1880s, with the burial of a veteran of the 25th United States Colored Troops, said Harold Scheidegger, who serves as the cemetery’s volunteer guide and historian. (These troops were part of the cortege for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.)
Yet there was quiet segregation of poorer people — those who hadn’t purchased a family plot and were buried in the so-called “public grounds,” said Scheidegger. “In the journals it would say, ‘WPG’ or ‘CPG,’ for ‘white public grounds or colored public grounds,’ ” Scheidegger said.
In Paramus, as late as 1939, one privately owned cemetery issued deeds to plot owners ordering that “No bodies, except those of persons of the white or Caucasian race” were allowed to be buried there.
The ban stayed on the books until 1958, when the cemetery’s owners sought a court ruling about its legality. The court called it a clear violation of the law.
Complicating the history of race and burial practices is the reality that ethnic groups often prefer to be among “their” people; older cemeteries often had separate sections for Greeks, “Gypsies,” or Japanese burials.
And for blacks, segregation in the grave wasn’t necessarily seen as entirely undesirable, said Price. If anything, they may have preferred to have some distance between them and their white neighbors.
“As slaves moved into Christianity, they started to factor in the afterlife. And they did not want to be near whites when the Judgment Day came,” Price said. “They did not want to be mistaken, in their place of Eternal Rest, with whites.”
As for Samuel Bass, the church sexton denied a Hackensack burial, he ended up being buried in Gethsemane Cemetery in Little Ferry, a cemetery opened a year before the Civil War for “the colored population of Hackensack.” Later, his relatives relocated his body to Philadelphia.
Editorial note: An earlier version incorrectly described the length of time between the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Negro Burial Bill.
Black History Month
• Today: While New Jersey’s cemeteries have been integrated for almost 130 years, old habits of subtle segregation die hard.
• Feb. 18: The traditional role of African-American funeral directors as community leaders.