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  • Writer's pictureLocal History Collection

“We found you!”: The Salem A.M.E. Cemetery

Researcher Carolyn Brown has been on a journey since the mid 1990’s and made an epic find last week, just in time for the holidays. A resident of Copiague, Ms. Brown is the granddaughter of Birdsall Leroy Townsend (1909-1973).

Birdsall Townsend can be seen on the far left of this photo of the Roslyn Negro Giants baseball team. E. Arrell Pearsall stands back row center.

The Townsends were one of many families of African American and Native American descent that had deep roots in Roslyn and other North Shore communities. Birdsall Townsend grew up in a house on Skillman Street, adjacent to Hempstead Harbor. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Skillman Street, Landing Road and neighboring streets were a thriving multiracial and multiethnic section of Roslyn.

Birdsall's WWII draft card with Skillman Street address.

When Ms. Brown initially began her genealogical research, she utilized the resources of Bryant Library’s Local History Collection. It was then that she first learned of the reinternment of those initially buried at the cemetery that belonged to the Salem A.M.E Church in Roslyn. Last month she returned, seeking more information about Townsend relatives, and others that may have been buried in the Mt. Zion Cemetery, a two acre burial ground owned by the aforementioned church. Roslyn’s Salem A.M.E. Church was built and founded in 1860 by African Americans and Native Americans and members of the congregation included families with both Native and African ancestry. The burial ground was situated on land along Harbor Hill Road, a short distance from the church.

When Clarence and Katherine Mackay married in 1898, Clarence’s father, “Silver Baron” John W. Mackay, gifted the couple two hundred acres of land on the second highest point on Long Island, an area known as Harbor Hill. With plans to create a self-sustaining estate, the Mackay's sought to acquire adjacent properties, including the two-acre cemetery, to incorporate into their “Harbor Hill” estate.

In 1899, amidst some controversy, the Mackay's agreed to purchase land for a new cemetery for Salem A.M.E. Church and to pay the costs of removing and re-interring the bodies in the new location. According to an article in the August 31, 1899 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, “The future burial ground of the colored people of North Hempstead will be in the new Greenlawn Cemetery at Pine Lawn, Long Island.”

For more than a century, relatively little was known about Mt. Zion Cemetery, including its exact location in Roslyn. In 2020, Local History staff discovered a 1902 clipping entitled “Poultry Yard in Cemetery.” According to the New York Herald article, “There was a cemetery on the spot where [Clarence Mackay] wanted the poultry farm to be located.” Descriptions of the Mackay’s Harbor Hill estate revealed that the estate’s short-lived poultry farm encompassed several acres and was situated on a site north of Harbor Hill Road.

Exactly where the remains had been moved was also a mystery. Recalling what she’d first learned about the reinternment twenty years earlier, Ms. Brown was determined to find out more about her Townsend relatives, in particular, and all those long forgotten individuals whose graves had been moved. Last month she returned to the Local History Collection, where we were able to provide her with a list that had been provided to the library by Pinelawn Memorial Park in 1974. On the list are the names of more than 200 individuals that had been reinterred in the cemetery in 1899. In addition to members of the Townsend family, the list included other longtime Roslyn families including Eato, Appleby, Pearsall, Brewster, Treadwell, Albertson, Jackson, Sands and Mayhew.

With these tidbits of information, Ms. Brown was able to use the Pinelawn Memorial Park website to identify plot and grave numbers as well as burial dates. Armed with this information, she visited Pinelawn and was directed to an older section of the cemetery located close to Wellwood Avenue and adjacent to the Colonial Springs Golf Club. Although she saw no headstones or other indication of graves, she knew her search was not over.

After enthusiastically contacting Bryant Library Archivist Carol Clarke, they visited the site on December 21, 2021, hoping to identify where Ms. Brown's Townsend ancestors and others had been laid to rest. Finding no traces of graves, they returned to the cemetery office. Using archival records and old maps, Vice President Brian Groblewski confirmed that she had, indeed, been given incorrect information. He explained that while she had been sent to one of the earliest sections of the cemetery, established in 1902, the plots owned by Salem A.M.E. Church where the 1899 interments had occurred was actually an even older section not shown on maps distributed to visitors. Originally called Greenlawn at Pinelawn, the section is outside the cemetery proper on land close to the Pinelawn train station.

Click through the gallery for more images from Ms. Brown and Mrs. Clarke's visit.

Ms. Brown has always said, “My ancestors have struggled too hard to be forgotten.” Thanks to Mr. Groblewski, the grounds staff and others, Carolyn Brown was able to bear witness to the long overlooked grave site of not only her Townsend ancestors but others from the community of Roslyn as well. What a joyous holiday gift to be able to say to the ancestors:

“We found you! You have not been forgotten!”

Carolyn Brown stands near two markers of discovered gravesites.

To learn more about the rich history of Roslyn's Black community, visit our Black History Portal where you can read more articles, view digital galleries, and listen to oral history accounts from former residents.


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