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Town weighs landmark status for African-American cemetery in Wantagh

Denice Sheppard poses for a portrait beside a

Denice Sheppard poses for a portrait beside a sign for the St. Matthias Church Cemetery in Wantagh Friday, March 28, 2014. The Town of Hempstead is considering designating the cemetery a landmark. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Hempstead Town Board is considering designating the St. Matthias Church Cemetery in Wantagh as a landmark to preserve the African-American burial site that dates to the mid-1800s.

The cemetery takes up 0.85 of an acre between single-family homes between Oakfield Avenue and Forest Lake Boulevard. Only four nearly illegible headstones remain on the plot, which resembles a small park with large trees.

"It's important to do it because it is part of history," said the Rev. Lawton Bryant, the church pastor who started the landmark-designation process in October 2012. "The cemetery and the people who were buried there should be properly recognized."

Under town law, landmark status could protect the site from development and would require any planned changes to be submitted to the town's Landmarks Preservation Commission for review.

"The Town of Hempstead is proud to consider adding . . . the St. Matthias Church Cemetery to a long list of notable landmarks, as we continue to preserve the historic past of America's largest town," Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray said in a statement. The town board has scheduled a public hearing April 29 on preserving the town-owned property.

The 169-year-old congregation has identified the graves of 108 church members who were buried at the cemetery until 1943. The graves hold five African-American Union Army Civil War veterans and descendants of slaves, according to interment records dating to 1862.

The congregation was founded in 1845 in the area once referred to as the "Brush," a community of free African-Americans and American Indians. After the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of Jerusalem's original church on the cemetery ground burned in the 1890s, a new church was built at its current location a half mile north at Jerusalem and Oakfield avenues, according to records and church officials.

The congregation became St. Matthias Episcopal Church in 1904, and in 2008, St. Matthias Ministries Inc. Church members said they don't believe their legal dispute with the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island over control of the current 1.2-acre church site will affect the cemetery's preservation.

St. Matthias owned the cemetery until 1921, when businessman Edward Browning bought the property with the intent to build an estate on land that included the site. The 1929 stock market crash scuttled his plans. After World War II, developers wanted to build houses, but black residents fought to keep the cemetery undeveloped, officials said.

The landmarks panel in June recommended the site become a landmark known as Old Burying Ground-St. Matthias Church Cemetery. But church members objected, saying the Old Burying Ground title was derogatory. The town board decided that if landmark status is granted, it would be identified as St. Matthias Church Cemetery.

"For years, the white community had used the degrading name of the Old Burial Ground," said Denice Evans Sheppard, 47, of Oyster Bay She is a descendant of the Jackson family, which makes up about two-thirds of the people buried in the cemetery. "We never considered it that because the cemetery was a part of our church."

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