There is an uneven sanctity to New York City’s burial grounds. In Inwood, beneath the tracks of the 1, an auto parts shop has operated for years atop a well-known burial site for the slaves of nearby, long-gone estates. In Van Cortlandt Park, a similar resting place for enslaved Africans, dating to the 17th century, remained unconsecrated until 2020, despite local historians having detailed its existence for decades. While certain sites have captured national attention — notably lower Manhattan’s African burial ground, one of the oldest and largest in the country — many others remain ignored or unrecognized by City officials, residents, and developers.
Across the United States, scores of local volunteer organizations and activists are working to save Black cemeteries from neglect and development. More than simply raising awareness about their historical significance, many are pushing for descendant communities, rather than those with legal power and capital, to shape the future of these places. Below, Amber Officer-Narvasa details the history and community response to one such site on the corner of Bedford and Church Avenue in Central Brooklyn: a burial ground mired by the indignity of lost and incomplete records, decades of occupation, and, now, the vagaries of government representatives, whose changing views on development spell an uncertain hereafter.
For as long as most people in the neighborhood can remember, schools have occupied the lot on the corner of Bedford and Church Avenues in Brooklyn. For more than three decades the H-shaped, brick-clad building was a private girls’ school, and from the mid-1950s to the late ‘60s it housed a branch of the Yeshiva University Boys’ High School. Before that, it was Public School No. 90, and — far before that, when Flatbush was still a bustling independent village on the outskirts of New Amsterdam — it was the Flatbush School. In 2016, New York City demolished the landmark building, citing safety concerns. For more than a century, the building had been a place where students, teachers, and parents could be seen coming and going. But over the past year, the lot has become home to a different kind of gathering.
Now, if you visit on Saturday, you will see groups of people cleaning up litter and debris, leading walking tours through and around the site, handing out flyers, holding rallies, and weaving pieces of public art into the chain link fence, where they flutter in the breeze. The gatherings are happening because in October 2020, New York City announced plans to put an affordable housing complex on the site, and the lot on the corner of Bedford and Church became the epicenter of an ongoing conflict over land, development, and Black ancestral memory. They are there because the lot isn’t just an overgrown former schoolground. It’s also a resting place for the dead.
At first, creative consultant and organizer Shanna Sabio didn’t realize this empty lot was any different from the others she had seen during her years living in Brooklyn. But she got a sense of its history while doing research for a youth-led community land trust that her organization, GrowHouse NYC, was hoping to establish. Several weeks later, Sabio received an email from a local urban farming school, explaining that the unassuming site was actually an African burial ground, and detailing efforts to preserve it. Neighborhood residents affiliated with a local community garden had started a petition against the housing development, and were holding regular Saturday gatherings there. “It’s kind of weird because this is an African burial ground, why aren’t there more Black people involved?” Sabio remembers questioning. After talking to existing members about their difficulties with outreach, Sabio began contacting people in her network and helping shape a core of Black leadership for the Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition (FABGC). When asked how she ended up becoming central to the organizing around the burial ground, Sabio speaks of the need to “merge people of African descent into this movement, and center it on the descendant community.”
From Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition in Maryland to Virginia’s Friends of East End Cemetery to those working to recognize the Inwood African Cemetery in New York, there is a growing movement to protect African burial sites across the country from development and neglect. Groups seeking to protect these grounds assert that people with ancestral and sacred ties to a site — the “descendant community” — should be the ones to shape its future, rather than those with legal title or greater economic capital. For Flatbush residents like coalition member Corazón Valiente, organizing to protect the burial site is a way to claim autonomy in the face of rapid real estate development and the displacement of the neighborhood’s Black community.
“With gentrification, you observe the names of stores changing, the ‘liquor store’ becoming the ‘wine shop,’ the supermarkets pushing organic food [marketed to] white people in their high rises,” Valiente says, noting that the growing inaccessibility of housing and new businesses makes them feel like a visitor in their own community. Rents have increased steeply in Flatbush and other historically Black and brown neighborhoods throughout New York, becoming increasingly unaffordable for many long-term residents. Census records indicate that between 2000 and 2010, Flatbush lost between 10 and 14 percent of its Black population. Through FABGC, Valiente hopes to help create gathering spaces where those who are systematically excluded from decision-making about their neighborhood can be heard.
The history of the Bedford-Church burial ground speaks to a much longer legacy of Black life and placemaking in Brooklyn. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, it is estimated that Brooklyn had the highest concentration of enslaved Africans north of the Mason-Dixon line. On an 1855 cadastral map of Flatbush, a portion of the grid covers the current Bedford-Church lot and extends onto the crossway. It is labeled “Negro Burying Ground.” An 1810 article in The Long Island Star mentions the death of a 110-year-old enslaved woman named Eve, whose remains were buried “in the African burying ground of the village of Flatbush.” In 2000, an archaeological firm conducted testing at the site ahead of a planned renovation of the school building, which was then still standing. The archaeologists, who were hired by the City, confirmed that remains found at the burial ground site most likely belonged to Black people who lived in pre-emancipation New York. The site has been neglected throughout the centuries: A local 1904 newspaper article blithely describes the excavation of the site for construction purposes, mentioning that schoolchildren took away parts of skeletons as souvenirs.
For Sabio, researching and sharing this history is essential to the work of preserving the burial ground itself as well as the memories it holds. On Saturdays, Sabio leads performative walking tours of the site and the surrounding area. These tours draw on Sabio’s extensive research into the history of Black colonial-era Brooklyn, bringing to life the stories of those who lived and worked around the burial site. Through her archival investigations and curated tours, Sabio emphasizes that “the site isn’t just about African-American history, but is really rooted in African diasporic history.” That history is connected to Sabio’s own. Like so many Flatbush residents, her family is Caribbean; her relatives hail from Panama by way of Colombia, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. While researching the burial site, she has sought out information about enslaved Africans sent to Brooklyn from places like Jamaica and the Bahamas.
Coalition members also use visual art and ritual as a way to honor the memory of the dead and publicly communicate the importance of the site. One of the first people Sabio reached out to about collaborating was Mildred Beltré, an artist who is one half of the public art group Brooklyn Hi-Art! Machine. They installed a large-scale fence weaving at the burial ground, which reads: “African Burial Ground/Truth is my compass.” Other coalition members, like Erasmus High School teacher Samantha Bernardine, have involved young people in sidewalk painting and signage projects, which advocate for the preservation of the site. Natalia Sucre, a longstanding FABGC member, notes that people often spontaneously leave flowers, candles, and other offerings for the dead. “I’m always surprised when I go [to the burial site], to see these little details,” Sucre says.
Throughout the African and Caribbean diasporas, spiritual practices such as Santería, Hoodoo, Lucumí, and other syncretic traditions emphasize ancestor worship. Through offerings, altars, and other forms of remembrance, practitioners reconnect with lineages that have often been stolen or denied them by the ongoing violence of chattel slavery. Through these small and repeated gestures, coalition members reference forms of Black spiritual practice and create space for public engagement with the site’s ancestral history. In addition to signage, someone from a local community garden installed a stylized grave marker, which hangs on the fence outside the site and names two of the enslaved people buried there. “I’ve laid flowers there, put different food offerings and things like that,” Valiente says. “Eventually we would like to do some kind of land blessing with someone from an African spiritual community.”
While coalition members are united in their efforts to stop real estate development on the burial ground, there are a variety of visions for the site’s future. Many, like Sabio, would like to see it maintained as a memorial and public green space. Valiente hopes it will include an educational installation and intentional space for people to honor their ancestors. Still others believe the site could be best protected if it became part of the National Park system. City officials have different ideas. In fall 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Councilmember Mathieu Eugene, whose district encompasses Flatbush, announced plans for an affordable housing development on the site. In response to community concerns about preserving the burial ground, Councilmember Eugene and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams established a taskforce to build “community-based recommendations on how to honor the African burial ground and serve the neighborhood with 100 percent affordable housing, youth-programming, and other neighborhood amenities.” Many coalition members and neighborhood residents were skeptical; they saw the taskforce as a way for the City to appear responsive to the community, without substantively responding to its concerns. Despite months of objections from taskforce members, coalition organizers, and other activists, de Blasio has not significantly changed his plan.
Indeed, de Blasio’s stated goal of creating or preserving almost 200,000 affordable housing units during his time in office has repeatedly come into conflict with the city’s landscapes of cultural and historic memory. In 2016, Inwood residents successfully rallied against the development of mixed-use affordable housing in their neighborhood, arguing that the proposed housing was not affordable enough for community members, and that the construction would hasten gentrification of their historically Latinx, largely low-income neighborhood. In 2020, community members protested the construction of another mixed-use affordable housing building, this time in Sunset Park. Protesters criticized the small number of affordable units and proposed rezoning, arguing that the City’s housing guidelines were shortchanging communities of color. This summer, residents of Little Italy began fighting to protect a beloved community sculpture garden from being developed into affordable senior housing.
For FABGC, the incoming mayor’s vision will be critical to the future of the burial ground. In mid-October, soon after a coalition rally at City Hall, Adams (now mayor-elect) substantively changed his position on the issue and released a statement urging de Blasio to stop development on the site. Adams’ pivot not only represents a major victory for the coalition but also raises questions about how he will interact with issues of land and real estate development in the future.
The organizers of FABGC also have the future in mind. Sabio is clear that coalition organizers “are creating future memory right now.” Through the work being done to honor and piece together the historical stories of the site, organizers are creating digital, written, and oral archives that later generations can look back on. Insisting on the sanctity of the Black dead, they are demanding that the legacies of memory and caretaking that live within the site be honored. During her walking tours, Sabio often shares the story of Sarah Hicks, an enslaved Black woman who was interviewed for an 1881 history of Flatbush’s Zabriskie Homestead. “In her story, [Sarah] talks about taking flowers and cakes to her sister’s grave at the African Burial Ground in Flatbush. If you think about what it means for an enslaved person to take that extra step after being worked day in and day out, to care for their loved ones who have passed on,” Sabio pauses, “we just have to make sure that nothing else happens to this site.”