Pieces to the puzzle of the mysterious cleanup of the 150-year-old cemetery located on the corner of Guy Brewer Boulevard and Liberty Avenue in Jamaica have been discovered.
For years, the cemetery, which belongs to the First United Methodist Church of Jamaica, had been abandoned by the church and left to vandals, who used it as a dumping ground.
Now, although the property still belongs to the church, it has indirectly become York College territory, since the school surrounds the site.
Thomas Crater, a local historian, started a small volunteer effort in 1996 to restore the cemetery. “The church has not been actively involved with the cemetery at all.”
He recalled finding debris including hypodermic needles, severed chicken heads, dead cats and dogs and empty bottles of alcohol on one of his first visits to clean up the site. “The site had been so grossly neglected, people didn’t even know it was a cemetery.”
In an ongoing effort to preserve the site, Crater wrote letters to public officials and solicited donations through his own local publication called The New York Page. He managed to contact one of the last members of the First United Methodist Church who donated $200 for the cleanup effort.
During one of his cleanups, an official at York College, whose office faced the cemetery, suggested Crater, a York College student at the time, get some help from the city.
“I got the Department of Sanitation involved and they brought in a Wildcat, a vehicle that cleans debris.”
The State Dormitory Authority put reinforcement around the cemetery because York College had planned to build a student center and several commercial buildings on the surrounding property, but the funding never came through.
It is believed that York College keeps the keys to the fence which surrounds the cemetery. However, officials at the school could not confirm having the key.
“They enclosed the cemetery to pour concrete within 15 to 20 feet of it to complete the paving of the parking lot,” Crater said.
In 1997 the Parks Department also responded to Crater’s call by sending workers from its volunteer PACT program to help restore the site. Soon after, York College began to take an active interest in preserving the site, according to Crater.
The graveyard, containing 105 head- stones, was donated to the church in the mid-1800s by the Leeches and Snedekers, two prominent families living in Jamaica at the time. The donation came with the condition that certain lots be reserved for the families as future burial spots.
“I believe in doing the right thing. It always bothered me that this cemetery was forgotten but the other cemetery on campus had been maintained because Van Wyck and Brinkerhoff are buried there.”
Crater said he would like someday to see a dedication ceremony by the school showing its commitment to the site.
“One of the things we don’t show is enough humility. In this fast-paced world, we tend to forget about those who have opened the doors for us or paved the way. We need to respect our local cemeteries.”