Brooklyn activists say they are still waiting to hear from Mayor Eric Adams about how he plans to help them save the Flatbush African Burial Ground.
The city-owned vacant site, located at 2286 Church Ave. in Brooklyn, has been a point of contention ever since former Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Council Member Mathieu Eugene announced in October 2020 their plans to build an affordable housing complex there.
The lot had been abandoned since 2015 when the building that housed Public School 90 (P.S. 90) was demolished because of potentially dangerous structural issues. The city claimed locals wanted something built on to the 29,000-square-foot property that would benefit the community. So, the plan to construct 100 affordable housing units and a youth-oriented community center appeared to be the perfect answer.
But even the city had acknowledged that the Church Ave. site contained remains from an African burial ground, and locals wanted more information about what the new housing complex might be built on.
The then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams co-chaired the Flatbush African Burial Ground Remembrance and Redevelopment task force which was created to consider what the community would like to see done with the land. During that first meeting, Historical Perspectives, Inc. the organization hired to research the site, stated that a burial ground had definitely been located on the land. “And immediately we were like, ‘Well, you know, no to any kind of development,’” Samantha Bernadine, one of the leaders of the Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition (FABGC), explained. “HPD (Department of Housing Preservation and Development) was very adamant that housing is needed in the community. But why is it that when it comes down to us that there is an excuse as to why things cannot be done the way it’s supposed to be done? This made no sense to us. So as individuals, we did our own way of informing the community and when we informed the community they were like, ‘Housing? Why would you put housing on top of a burial ground?’ And that is how we sparked the community’s engagement and how the FABGC was born.”
Borough Pres. Adams wrote a letter to then-Mayor de Blasio stating that “a memorial and open space” would be best for the site. “Our borough absolutely needs to build more affordable housing, especially in Flatbush, but I cannot support building it on an area shown to have human remains of enslaved peoples below,” he wrote on Oct. 8, 2021. “This is an opportunity to truly reflect on the painful past of our city’s founding and recognize the role that our overlooked ancestors have played in its growth and, more importantly, to properly memorialize their lives.”
Within a year, HPD’s plans for the new housing complex ended. “We were able to engage with other community members and elected officials to ensure that housing is not placed here,” Bernadine told the Amsterdam News. “And we’re at a point right now where we want to have true community engagement as to how we can honor our ancestors.”
On Feb. 16, FABGC hosted a tour of the Flatbush African Burial Ground site for CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez and Brooklyn College President Michelle J. Anderson. The two CUNY administrators took the tour to also see the work Brooklyn College students have been doing, since they have been interning with the FABGC on work to protect and preserve the site, with the help of a funding grant awarded to CUNY’s Black, Race, and Ethnic Studies Initiative.
“You don’t really think about this kind of issue, this history, when you think of New York history,” attested Brooklyn College student Jodi Ferrara who interns with the FABGC. “When you think about slavery in America, you think about, like, the South. You don’t really think about how things like this took place in the North. So, I think it’s important to save this piece of history and educate people on what it was like. I think it’s important just the way that any other historical site is important. I guess if you’re spiritual, there’s like a spirit to the land.”
Before leading a tour of the site, FABGC leader Shanna Sabio told CUNY Chancellor Matos, “We have elders who’ve lived in this community for years who remember that there were bones taken out of there when they were putting the first building up.”
Matos told the FABGC leaders that he was impressed that CUNY students can engage with the community while learning: “History, anthropology, archeology these are all things that we can learn lessons from,” he said. “And the lessons can be part of civic engagement. That’s extremely powerful.”
The FABGC’s Sabio added, “The other piece about history that has really come to life for me is that we’re making history right now. Every step that everyday people make is actually historical. We have this misconception that it’s ‘one great man’ who actually makes history, but it’s the actions of everyday people who make history. So, if we can get people engaged and see this as a historic moment, at a historic place, then I think we’re going to win.”