Beneath the vacant lot on the corner of Bedford and Church Avenues, the site of former Public School 90, lies an African burial ground. The grounds’ historic remains of African slaves date back to the colonial Dutch town that settled there in the 1650s.
Today, the lot sits in a primarily Black and Caribbean community that many who were present at a rally to save the grounds from being developed on Wednesday evening, June 9, said they had no idea about.
“This city already has desecrated this sacred space by making it a road,” said Rev. Sheldon Hanelin to the crowd gathered on the corner, “When you look at all the major cemeteries here in Brooklyn, Greenwood comes to mind. Greenwood has been preserved and the roads have been built around because most of those well-to-do caucasians are buried there.”
Redoneva Andrews, tenant leader at the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, said that her ancestors have absolutely been disrespected and wants them commemorated.
“I think the community should have a say and this is why we’re here,” said Andrews. “This whole affordable housing foolishness. Affordable for who? Not for us, people of color. I’ve been in this neighborhood for 35 years and I’ve actually seen affordable housing built up time and again, and people who I know who applied get turned down every single time.”
City council candidates vying to replace term-limited Councilmember Mathieu Eugene in District 40, which covers mostly Flatbush, Ditmas Park, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and other neighborhoods, signed a petition to help save and commemorate the burial grounds and joined passionate community members at the rally.
Candidates like Rita Joseph, Cecilia Cortez, Kenya Handy-Hilliard, Blake Morris, Victor Jordan, and Vivia Morgan all vowed that the land must be preserved to honor its Black history.
Cortez said that if people died there then it’s important to create a space where people can come to express their feelings. “In the same way that we created the monument after 9/11, where after all the discussion they decided to make a space for people to come together with families,” said Cortez.
In 2019, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and the Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) established the Flatbush African Burial Ground Remembrance and Redevelopment Task Force to identify any potential descendant communities of the colonial enslaved and freed Africans of early Flatbush.
According to research compiled by the LPC and the task force, the burial site was originally inhabited by the Canarsie and Munsee Lenape native tribes before the Dutch overtook the area and used it as a village center for local farms. The documents state that during that time, many Dutch families in Flatbush owned enslaved Africans and close to 80% of households did by the 19th century.
The 29,000 square foot site where slaves were buried eventually became a school building in 1878, a “direct descendant” of the first school ever built in Flatbush and likely Long Island, said the LPC. The historic school was demolished in 2015 due to “hazardous structural conditions,” said the Mayor’s office last year.
In October 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Councilmember Eugene announced plans to develop approximately 130 “affordable homes” on the burial ground site. The city is now launching a Request for Proposals (RFP) or applications process to determine how to develop the housing units and space as well as incorporate a tribute to the site’s past.
Many at the site’s rally said that they do recognize a need for housing in the neighborhood, but do not believe that the promised apartments will be in any way affordable for them.
Organizer and high school teacher Samantha Bernardine is on the LPC’s task force. She said that she’s a strong vocal advocate against developing housing on the site and broke off to form her own group, Bedford-Church Lot Organizing Group, to make sure that it’s stopped.
“In communities of color where the government likes to tell you what they’re going to do or what’s good for us and not ask us, I’m totally against that,” said Bernardine. “Our group is to educate the community and let the government know that in order for anything to move forward, they need to come and ask the community.”
Over the years, said Bernardine, residents from Community Boards 14 and 17 have put forth many ideas on what to do with the land, including building a community center, a youth center, a senior center, a Caribbean trade and cultural center, a museum, or community clinic.
“I would love to see green space, a community garden, and as an educator that teaches right down the street, I would like to see the kids get to learn the history of Flatbush,” said Joseph. “Most of the kids who live in the area don’t realize there were slaves here and Native Americans here.”
“We’ll try to come up with a plan that makes everyone happy, but I do not think we need any more skyscrapers in Flatbush,” said Jordan.
The task force will be hosting its third workshop to crowdsource ideas for the site on Wednesday, June 30 via Zoom.
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