Cypress Hills

Take a stroll around Cypress Hills Cemetery

Baseball great Jackie Robinson is buried in this historic graveyard.

October 9, 2019 Lore Croghan
Welcome to Cypress Hills Cemetery, a fine place for a fall stroll. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Eye on Real Estate: Halloween is coming. What a perfect time for a walk in a Brooklyn graveyard.

Why not visit the place where American icon Jackie Robinson was laid to rest?

Robinson, who broke the race barrier in Major League Baseball in the 1940s when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, is buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery.

Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson makes a home run in a 1948 game at Ebbets Field. AP Photo/Ray Howard
Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson makes a home run in a 1948 game at Ebbets Field. AP Photo/Ray Howard

His grave can be found high up on a hill of the historic cemetery. When I was there a few days ago, his admirers had left a stack of baseballs and three baseball bats in front of his headstone.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” is the inspirational message engraved on his tombstone.

Jackie Robinson’s gravestone is an inspiring sight. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Jackie Robinson’s gravestone is an inspiring sight. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Take the J train

Three of Brooklyn’s numerous graveyards are famous, and Cypress Hills is one of them. If you have time this busy autumn, you should visit the other two as well.

There’s high-profile Green-Wood Cemetery in Greenwood Heights, where the celebrity graves include those of Neo-Expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and composer Leonard Bernstein. If you really want to get into the mood for Halloween, Green-Wood offers night-time tours.

And there’s the Evergreens Cemetery in Bushwick, where tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and many victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire are buried.

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Non-sectarian Cypress Hills Cemetery, which was established in 1848, is situated on 225 acres of hilly terrain. Its front entrance is at 833 Jamaica Ave. It is open every day of the year. If you don’t live in the neighborhood, ride the J train to the Cypress Hills Station to get to the graveyard.

Earth angel, earth angel, will you be mine? (Remember the famous doo-wop song by the Penguins?) Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Earth angel, earth angel, will you be mine? (Remember the famous doo-wop song by the Penguins?) Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Before you start your stroll, go to the cemetery office and ask for a map that shows notable burials. It’s different from the map that’s online.

America’s first black female lawyer

The graveyard’s winding, scenic roadways can lead you in lots of different directions. The path I took on my recent stroll led me to a monument for Rev. Charles Ray and his daughter Charlotte Ray.

The clergyman was also a journalist and an Underground Railroad conductor. His mother was a fugitive slave and his father was a free black man, author Tom Calarco says in “People of the Underground Railroad: A Biographical Dictionary.”

Between 1840 and 1853, Ray was the secretary of an anti-slavery organization called the New York Committee of Vigilance. During those years, he helped more than 1,700 slaves escape to freedom, and helped an unknown number of fugitives after that, Calarco writes.

The minister’s daughter Charlotte Ray was the first black woman in the United States to become a lawyer.

She used her initials instead of her full name to disguise her gender when she applied to Howard University’s law school. She graduated with a law degree in 1872 and was admitted to the bar in Washington, D.C. that same year. She opened her own law firm.

This obelisk stands at the graves of the Rev. Charles Ray and his daughter Charlotte Ray. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
This obelisk stands at the graves of the Rev. Charles Ray and his daughter Charlotte Ray. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

In 1875, Ray went to court seeking a divorce for a woman whose violent, drunken husband had chopped a hole in their home’s wood floor and threatened to push her through it. Divorce was rare in that era, but Ray won the case.

Because of racial and gender bias, Ray couldn’t get enough clients to keep her law firm open. She moved to New York City in 1879 and became a schoolteacher in Brooklyn.

Early residents of the neighborhood

After paying my respects to Rev. Charles Ray and Charlotte Ray, I headed up the hill (one of many, many hills in the bucolic landscape).

Here lies John Eldert, whose family farm was located where Atlantic Avenue and Eldert Lane can now be found. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Here lies John Eldert, whose family farm was located where Atlantic Avenue and Eldert Lane can now be found. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Shortly thereafter, I discovered the grave of John Pitkin, who was born in 1794 and died in 1847. He was an early developer in East New York. Neighborhood residents remember his name every time they head out on Pitkin Avenue.

An East New York street that runs perpendicular to Pitkin Avenue — Eldert Lane — is named after John Eldert, who died in 1905 and is also buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery. The Eldert family owned a farm and farmhouse at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Eldert Lane, the cemetery’s map says.

The beautiful monument at left marks the grave of spouses James Timson and Elizabeth Benedict. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
The beautiful monument at left marks the grave of spouses James Timson and Elizabeth Benedict. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Further along the way, I saw lovely statues on pedestals.

On the Dreyer monument, the statue is a woman wearing a beautifully draped dress and holding a wreath.

On the Newman monument, the statue is a winged angel.

A fine statue graces the Dreyer monument. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
A fine statue graces the Dreyer monument. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

A place of honor for police officers

Stone obelisks are another popular type of monument at Cypress Hills Cemetery.

The one that marks the grave of Oliver Halsey has rows of realistic-looking tassels carved into it. It’s very eye-catching.

The elaborately decorated obelisk at right marks the grave of Oliver Halsey. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
The elaborately decorated obelisk at right marks the grave of Oliver Halsey. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Despite all my meandering around the peaceful graveyard, I did get to Jackie Robinson’s grave to pay my respects.

After that, I headed to the other side of the cemetery to the Police Arlington Memorial, which is a special burial place created by the Metropolitan Police Benevolent Association in 1871.

It is also known as the NYPD Honor Legion Police Memorial Garden.

There are markers to alert visitors to two notable people buried there.

One is Rabbi Abraham Blum, who was the NYPD’s first Jewish chaplain.

He was appointed to his post in 1911 and served until his death in 1921, the NYPD said when it celebrated the 100th anniversary of its Jewish chaplaincy.

Flags fly at the NYPD Honor Legion Police Memorial Garden. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Flags fly at the NYPD Honor Legion Police Memorial Garden. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

The other is Henry Haywood, a New York City police officer who served as one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the 1898 Spanish-American War in Cuba.

Haywood died from a gunshot wound he sustained during the Battle of San Juan Hill. His body was ID’d thanks to the police badge he’d attached to the inside of his shirt.

A Civil War burial ground

Near the NYPD’s memorial garden, you’ll find one of the largest monuments in Cypress Hills Cemetery. It’s an imposing statue of a woman pointing skywards. She’s standing on an extremely tall pedestal.

This is one of Cypress Hills Cemetery’s largest monuments. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
This is one of Cypress Hills Cemetery’s largest monuments. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

The monument marks the grave of Henry Meyer, a German immigrant who grew wealthy by founding the Ivanhoe Brand Pipe and Chewing Tobacco Co.

He got his start in business by working as a clerk in a grocery store that also sold wholesale tobacco products. He used his savings to buy the shop in the early 1870s when the owner couldn’t keep it afloat financially, a Brownstoner story by architectural history expert Suzanne Spellen says.

His first factory was the Bushwick Tobacco Works. He later set up a larger factory in Glendale, Queens.

A section of Cypress Hills Cemetery is a National Cemetery where soldiers from the Civil War are buried. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
A section of Cypress Hills Cemetery is a National Cemetery where soldiers from the Civil War are buried. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

There’s another extraordinary thing to see in this part of Cypress Hills Cemetery. In 1862, a National Cemetery was established for Civil War soldiers.

Thousands of ghostly white tombstones are lined up in long rows on the hillsides.

There’s something to keep in mind when you take a graveyard stroll. The distances are vast and the gates are locked at a specific time. In Cypress Hills Cemetery, it’s 4:30 p.m.

After you leave, take a moment to look at the old-fashioned arched entryway on Jamaica Avenue.

This is Cypress Hills Cemetery’s Jamaica Avenue gate. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
This is Cypress Hills Cemetery’s Jamaica Avenue gate. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

It’s made of brick and stone and has an elaborately decorated roof. It’s an impeccable replica of the original structure, which was built in 1893.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

Eye on Real Estate is veteran reporter Lore Croghan’s weekly column on Brooklyn’s built environment. Whether it’s old as Abraham Lincoln or so new it hasn’t topped out yet, if a building is eye-catching, Eye will show it to you.

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