Bedford Church African Burial Ground Coalition members adorned the gates surrounding the Flatbush African Burial Ground earlier this summer. (Tamar Sarai Davis)

On the corner of Bedford and Church avenues in Brooklyn, yellow, green, red, black, and white fabric weaves its way through metal gates reflecting the words of activist and writer Assata Shakur: “TRUTH IS MY COMPASS. WHAT IS LEFT?” Above the quote, framed by pots of herbs strung around the gates painted with a variety of adinkra symbols, more fabric letters read: “AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND.”

For a recently formed coalition of organizers, the truth has led them to this plot of land in Flatbush, Brooklyn—a former burial ground for enslaved Black Americans who were held in bondage by some of the region’s wealthiest families and whose history has been recorded, if not well-publicized. What is left of the space is a 29,000-square-foot plot of unkempt grass, locked away by metal gates and bounded to the south by a neighborhood high school. While people living in the community see the sacred space as a window into New York’s increasingly well-documented history of slavery, city officials saw a real estate opportunity. 

In October 2020, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Councilmember Mathieu Eugene announced plans to build new affordable housing at the corner of Bedford and Church in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with construction slated to begin by 2025. While the plan is backed by Brooklyn Borough President and Mayor-elect Eric Adams, a local coalition of organizers is arguing that housing is not the right use for the land in light of its history, significance, and sanctity. Organizers are adamant that the housing project on that land should be stopped, particularly in light of other recent affordable housing developments in the borough that were not truly affordable or accessible to lower-income applicants. 

“When they make these affordable housing plans, they fail to inform the community and provide those details,” said Harriet Hines, a former city council candidate and organizer with #Justice1654, a coalition working to preserve the burial ground. “By the time we finally realize what’s happening, it’s too late for us to make an informed decision so that we can fight or express ourselves.”

Nineteenth century newspapers listed obituaries for Eve and Phyllis, formerly enslaved women who were interred in the African Burial Ground. Organizers seek to honor them with a painted headstone. (Tamar Sarai Davis)

Mishandling a sacred site

In 2000, an archeaological study confirmed the presence of some remains at the site, and last year an 1855 map of the area was made available by the Center for Brooklyn History listing a “negro burial ground” at the Bedford and Church intersection. Further, since the early 20th century, the plot of land has been the site of numerous construction projects, each of which have led to the discovery of human remains. For example, a 1904 news story on the construction of the neighborhood’s sewer system reported the discovery of a skeleton “believed to be that of a negro, a burial ground for colored people having been located at this spot at one time.” While the skeleton was fully intact at the time of its discovery, the article reports, it fell apart during removal and children from a nearby school then “placed the skull on the ends of a stick and paraded around with it. Several of the boys carried away teeth as souvenirs.” 

Flatbush organizers are calling for an end to this pattern of mishandling both the land itself and the remains of those interred there. Following the announcement of the housing development, city leaders publicly launched the Flatbush African Burial Ground Remembrance and Redevelopment Task Force, chaired by Eugene and Adams, to “build community-based recommendations on how to honor the African burial ground and serve the neighborhood with 100% affordable housing, youth-programming, and other neighborhood amenities.” The group will meet seven times throughout mid-2021 and has hosted three open community workshops focused on collecting resident input about the housing development. 

However, organizers with #Justice1654 and the Bedford-Church African Burial Ground Coalition say that outreach, and thus participation, within these workshops have been low. Most importantly, the sessions have not included the option of voting down the development in its entirety. 

Rewriting history

GrowhouseNYC, the organization that leads the Bedford-Church African Burial Ground Coalition, learned about the burial ground while researching city-owned property during a project aimed at developing a community land trust. Shanna Sabio, co-founder and executive director of GrowhouseNYC, also came across a petition to preserve the burial ground created by a non-Black collective. While supportive of their preservation efforts, she also pushed them to include more Black residents into the ideation process about the future of the site, resulting in the creation of the Black-led collective Bedford-Church African Burial Ground Coalition this June. 

The group has since begun hosting walking tours of the area for Flatbush residents, and in late June ran an online teach-in about the history of the site and their overall demands, fueled by extensive archival research of the area. In conducting this research, Sabio was surprised to learn about the extent of slavery in New York, and particularly Brooklyn. 

While emancipation did come to New York in 1827, nearly four decades before the end of the Civil War, the state had a robust economy fueled by the labor of enslaved people. Enslaved Africans built homes and churches, slaughtered livestock, and farmed the largely agricultural landscape of the borough. By 1790, over 30% of Brooklyn’s residents were of African descent and the proportion in Flatbush was even higher where 378 of the town’s 390 Black residents were enslaved. 75% of white Flatbush families at the time were slaveholders. 

Sabio says sharing and highlighting that history through the Flatbush African Burial Ground could be a powerful way to redress the errors we’ve been taught about the antebellum North while also boosting the neighborhood’s economy. Affordable housing isn’t the only way project development can benefit a community, and Sabio sees potential for both public education about Brooklyn’s history of slavery and economic benefits for both locals and the city itself.

“One of the things that I would love to do with the walking tours is teach young people in the community how to do them so that they can monetize them and become tour guides [while] creating more community awareness,” Sabio said. “I think having the site memorialized could also create an aspect of tourism and economic and cultural vitality that I don’t think Eric Adams and Mathieu Eugene are really concerned about or thinking about.” 

Different visions for the future

Rather than a new development, organizers wish to see the site publicly and perpetually commemorated. However, while many community groups are united in their opposition to the housing development project, there’s less consensus on the question of exactly how the burial ground should be commemorated. Some organizers are advocating for the space to be home to a museum or memorial—a reflective and potentially restorative project akin to the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan that is now under the management of the National Parks Service. Others have called for turning the lot into a community farm that also commemorates the history of the site. 

In a statement to Prism, Rita Joseph, councilwoman-elect for District 40 and one of 10 candidates who signed onto a petition denouncing the housing development, expressed support for transforming the burial ground into an urban farm.

“A community farm would provide an improved environment for current residents while simultaneously honoring the people who came before us: the Munsee Lenape and Canarsie peoples who walked this land, as well as the African-American slaves who are potentially buried on the lot,” Joseph wrote. “Central Brooklyn is in desperate need of green spaces, as District 40 is ranked 45th for the number of park & playground acres per 1,000 residents out of NYC’s 51 City Council Districts. A community garden would serve our neighbors well.”

The proposal for an urban farm isn’t free from controversy. In a June 9 interview with WBAI News, Matt Denaro, a white organizer from Flatbush Workers United, a multiracial coalition that has coordinated actions alongside the Bedford-Church African Burial Ground Coalition, touted the benefit of enslaved bodies still labouring post-mortem as part of the land: “[I]t would be an incredible use of public land to convert [the lot] into an urban farm where the people who were buried there, their bodies that have decomposed, make the soil nutrient rich. Their spirit is still in the community that way—their spirit literally nourishing the community.” 

The statement was condemned by organizers within #Justice1654 as being racially insensitive. Flatbush Workers United and Denaro have since released a formal statement apologizing for the interview and retracting their support for using the lot as a community farm. 

For Hines, that gesture is the least the city can do given that the vacant lot is just a small slice of the former burial ground and so much of it has already been lost. Hines pointed out how the land has already been the site of development and community use for decades, so it shouldn’t be too much to ask for that single piece of land to now serve as a memorial to those who built both the city and country. 

“There was once a Jewish school built on top of that site that only recently got demolished—so had that school not been demolished, this little piece of land wouldn’t even be vacant and available,” Hines said. “We have bones under the street of Church Avenue and Bedford. We have bones under the post office, we have bones under the gas station, we’ve got bones under Erasmus High School! Let us have a museum and something to commemorate us and give us dignity in life.”

Sabio said that despite varying opinions on what the site would ideally look like, organizers have coalesced around the agreement that the city should not move forward with the new housing development. Sabio emphasized the importance of both enabling input from Black communities in the city on what the site should become and informing the public about the land being a burial ground for enslaved Africans.

“People agree that a community engagement process still needs to happen and that process would include envisioning the site,” Sabio said. “The focus has shifted to getting the city to not build on the site and building awareness amongst locals—and in particular, African descended people—about the site because up until this point, the city’s engagement process has been fairly anemic.”

Selective preservation and obliteration 

Organizers say that opposing the housing development and creating a memorial is crucial because the land is, first and foremost, sacred, and those interred there deserve to rest undisturbed and at peace. Additionally, how the city determines the land should be used could disrupt—or reinforce—a deeper and harmful historical pattern about whose lives and stories are worth preserving, and whose are considered expendable. 

Dr. Elizabeth Meade, an archaeologist, noted in her 2020 dissertation how selective preservation and erasure of these sites is often based in “institutionalized colonial power structures” that continue to govern land use and reinforce what—and who—is important enough to remember. Meade’s work has focused on New York City’s cemeteries from the 17th century to the present. She created Cemeteries of New York, an online database documenting information on known cemeteries throughout New York City, their religious and cultural affiliation, and their status as either preserved or obliterated. According to Meade’s research, all seven African burial grounds located across the five boroughs were obliterated following their closure, contributing to the loss and erasure of the stories and memories of the enslaved and disrupting the ability of their descendents to connect, commune with, and honor them.

The uneven preservation and erasure of burial sites also shapes the physical landscape of the city, rewriting history for those living in and traveling through it. Just one block west of the African Burial Ground lot is the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, a church and cemetery that has interred the members of some of Flatbush’s most well known families—including the Lefferts, Cortelyous, and Vanderbilits, families after which many of the neighborhoods streets are named. The cemetery’s manicured lawns and magisterial headstones make it a popular tourist attraction, in stark contrast to the Flatbush African burial ground, which doesn’t even have a formal placard acknowledging its history. The neighborhood’s topography cements the lives of white slave owners while erasing their slave-holding past and the memories of those they held in bondage. 

However, Hines says that the movement “is definitely growing” as more community members learn about the burial ground. #Justice1654 meets in front of the lot weekly on Wednesdays for a rally and street demonstration, and the Bedford-Church African Burial Ground Coalition hosts walking tours every Saturday. Sabio also said that in the coming weeks, the coalition plans to meet with Councilwoman-elect Rita Joseph as well as architects who played a significant role in the development of the African Burial Ground Memorial in lower Manhattan. The group will be power mapping and developing targeting strategies for other incoming elected officials that will take office next year. 

Among the symbols adorning the gate surrounding the Bedford-Church lot is the Sankofa, a symbol that has been heavily incorporated into other African Burial Ground monuments elsewhere in the city. The symbol roughly translates to “retrieve” or “to reach back and get it”—a reminder that here, too, there is still potential to restore all the history that’s been lost.  

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.