Mayor-elect and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, said he’s opposing the current affordable housing plan to be built on Flatbush African burial ground last week.
In his letter, Adams notes that there is a pressing need for open space in the Flatbush area. He encourages the city to transfer ownership of the lot to another city agency, like the parks department, to develop it into a memorial with open, green spaces.
Adams said the intention is to preserve the unique and sacred heritage of the site for residents. “The residents of Flatbush and the members of the Task Force have expressed a clear preference for the site to be converted into a memorial with an open space,” said Adams in a statement.
Many of the neighborhood’s Black and Brown residents have said that they never knew a burial ground was there to begin with, and dislike the idea of building over it.
Incoming Councilmember Rita Joseph said that she was a teacher down the street at Erasmus Hall High School for over 20 years and didn’t know the history behind the lot. Joseph said that she has spoken with soon to be Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, if elected this November, to at least memorialize the space as well. She said she’s with Adams in supporting alternate proposals for the grounds and possibly doing another excavation of the land.
The burial site is at an abandoned lot at the intersection of Church and Bedford Avenues that is known to be a burial ground for enslaved Africans. The land has had a major role in the history of the borough and the city, but is still overlooked.
It dates all the way back to 1651, when the area was first settled by the Dutch. Most families in the area owned at least one African slave back then. By 1654, the Flatbush Reformed Church was founded and the first structure built on the plot. Enslaved people were not permitted to be buried on the church’s grounds when they passed, and so were buried on land the church owned at the time, said the BP’s office.
The corner lot was home to a centuries-old school, called Public School 90, but has been vacant since the school was demolished in 2016.
The site was archaeologically tested by the city in 2001 and that work uncovered human remains and concluded that there may be more at the site, said the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The remains found at the time were reburied at the Flatbush Reformed Church cemetery. The report also mentions numerous times in the 1800s and 1900s where human bones were found indicating that the site was likely a “colored cemetery.”
Historical documents have confirmed the identities of two people: a formerly enslaved woman named Phyllis Jacobs who’s believed to have been on the Zabriskie Homestead, and a 110-year-old formerly enslaved woman named Eve believed to have been owned by the Vorhees and Ditmas families.
Historians believe that the burial ground was used for new burials from an indeterminate date in the 17th century through the early 1840s, said the BP’s office.
Dutch slave owners in power diminished the validity of those enslaved in the city and often did not keep records relevant to their lives and deaths, said the archeological report. Where African slaves and freed Blacks were buried was “frequently” excluded from property records and histories or “obliterated,” while graves of individuals of European descent associated with the same homesteads and farms in the city were relocated or preserved.
These racist tactics of previous generations have made tracking down who was buried on the site difficult so far, especially since the burial ground was “gradually reduced in size as sections were given away, paved over for roads, or sold off.”
The archeological report concluded that the site could have additional undiscovered human remains and “that it should either remain undisturbed or be subjected to further archaeological investigation.”
LPC confirmed that “no archaeology has been conducted since the demolition of the school” in 2016.
The planned housing development of the site was announced by de Blasio and Councilmember Mathieu Eugene last year and has been a hot topic among advocates in the neighborhood.
The Flatbush African Burial Ground Remembrance and Redevelopment Task Force, co-chaired by Adams and Eugene, is preparing to release a final vision document with recommendations for the site this fall. The task force conducted a series of meetings and workshops in May and June of this year, before holding community meetings in September so that proposals could reflect what they wanted.
Adams said he recognizes, and is “sympathetic,” to the equally pressing need for affordable housing in the area, but he believes other sites might be better suited for it.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w