The Famous Woodlawn Cemetery Celebrates Its Caribbean Legacy

2woodlawn6cm-1-webIt’s not a typical gathering place, but a collection of Caribbean celebrities and VIPs are together at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, joining a host of famous folks resting there.

A National Historic Landmark, the cemetery is the final resting place for jazz greats Duke Ellington and Miles Davis; “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz, groundbreaking black millionaire Madam C.J. Walker and other historic figures.

“The Caribbean Legacy of Woodlawn Cemetery,” a special section of the institution’s website, features history makers of Caribbean heritage and gives background about their contributions. The 400-acre nonsectarian cemetery, at 517 E. 233rd St., offers group visits and there’s even a mobile app that gives visitors independent tours.

“At the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, many talented individuals left paradise to explore opportunities in New York City. People from St. Croix, Barbados, Antigua, and the British West Indies came to America to become a part of one of America’s most exciting times,” reads a part of the “Caribbean Legacy” web page. “As time passed, members of the Caribbean community became political activists, leading the efforts for Civil Rights, establishing influential churches with active congregations and were acknowledged as the most influential writers and speakers of their time. Those who organized what grew into powerful unions and raised children who became our nation’s most influential leaders chose to be remembered at Woodlawn.”

Luther and Maud McKoy Powell, the Jamaican-born parents of former Secretary of State Colin Powell; Antigua-born Archbishop George A. McGuire, who founded the African Orthodox Church — a denomination established for black Episcopalians — and famous actor Bert Williams from the Bahamas are all part of the Caribbean Legacy page. Williams, one of the most distinguished performers of the vaudeville era and a trailblazing black entertainer, was the first black American to play a lead role on the Broadway.

There are featured personalities from Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad, Antigua and St. Croix — which is well represented.

Dubbed “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time,” Hubert Harrison, from St. Croix, was an influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance and afterward.

Canada Lee, the son of immigrants from St. Croix, was a boxing champion-turned-actor who worked on Broadway and later had successes in Hollywood – including a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-nominated film “Lifeboat.” And Casper Holstein (photo), a native of St. Croix, gained fame as a major Harlem numbers-rackets boss nicknamed the “Bolito King.” Actor Jeffrey Wright’s character, Valentin Narcisse, on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” series, was inspired by Holstein.


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