Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Landmark Historic African Burial Ground in Elmhurst - Endangered by Development Plans

By Michael Perlman

The original Union African Church on African American Burial Ground, Courtesy of EHCPS
Every community has distinctive resources which are sometimes forgotten, but rarely buried and rediscovered. The African Burial Ground in Elmhurst, once known as Newtown, is a 19th century property that has been long-forgotten, and was even de-mapped by the city in 1931. It may soon undergo a five-story residential building at 47-11 90th Street, if developer Song Liu’s plans materialize, but “not so fast” according to the Elmhurst History & Cemeteries Preservation Society (EHCPS). This non-profit is spearheading the initiative to have this culturally significant site landmarked by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), and has submitted a Request For Evaluation (RFE) form on October 1.

Newtown was one of the first three free African American communities, and it was a pivotal time in history for its residents who owned land and properties including a church, cemetery, and school, as well as homes and shops. The African American Burial Ground originated in 1828, a year after the abolition of slavery in New York, and is rumored to date even earlier. 

Recent aerial view of former African Burial Ground, Courtesy of EHCPS
“The first step is to protect the burial ground as is, so it can be officially recognized for its sensitive and important history, as well as a respected final resting place of the freed and free African American community of Newtown,” said EHCPS President Marialena Giampino. “We are also nominating the site for the State & National Register of Historic Places to be considered as a State and National Landmark.” The list of supporters is on the rise and includes local residents, the Historic Districts Council, Queens Preservation Council, Corona-East Elmhurst Historic Preservation Society, and Queens Community Board 4. “Only landmark designation can protect the historical integrity of the site in perpetuity,” said Mitchell Grubler, Queens Preservation Council President. “The local community should have a voice in what happens to the property.”

The congregation was founded in a Newtown carpenter shop by four freed African Americans. The site once contained a church and parsonage for St. Mark’s American Methodist Episcopal Church, originating as the United African Society, but in 1928, when the church had plans to relocate when the city planned to widen Union Avenue (now Corona Avenue), their permit to transfer all burials to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth was denied. As a result, Mount Olivet records show that twenty burials were transferred to two of their plots. There is an estimate of over 300 burials on the African Burial Ground as of 1886, when the church requested assistance in conducting repairs and enclosing the site.

In 1929, the congregation decided to sell their property and relocated in 1930 to North Corona, now East Elmhurst. Despite the political decisions at play during the 20th century, the church remains a symbol of perseverance at its current location in Jackson Heights. 

Body & coffin fragments after excavation, Identified as Martha Peterson, Courtesy of EHCPS
Fast-forward to 2011, a time when it can be said that the dead teaches the living. The remains of Martha Peterson, a 26-year-old African American dubbed the “Iron Coffin Lady” were discovered on site in a high state of preservation, despite succumbing to the smallpox epidemic in 1850. Giampino explained, “When the site was being prepared for construction, the backhoe dug into something that made a loud noise. The construction crew saw human feet exposed from the ground and immediately called 911. If it wasn't for the Martha Peterson discovery, the public would not be aware of the site and a direct link to Newtown history. She has been a revelation for so many and we thank her.” The crew originally suspected that it was a recent homicide. Peterson received a proper burial in 2016 at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. 

Mummified remains of Martha Peterson, Courtesy of EHCPS
On October 3, 2018, PBS aired “Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin.” The airtight iron coffin originated in 1848 by a stove manufacturer named Almond Dunbar Fisk, and due to its high cost, it was typically used by the wealthy. She was the daughter of John and Jane Peterson, well-respected African American figures in Newtown.

EHCPS Vice President James McMenamin recalls feeling “emotionally lifted” by the research and care, as well as the human aspect. He said, “Who was she? What was her life like? How did the area function in 1850 when she passed, and how were the relationships between people? Based on the evidence, she was much cared for by her extended family, the community at large, as well as her employers.” 

African Burial Ground now with dumpsters, Courtesy of EHCPS
Giampino said, “It appears to be vacant land, but human remains are still interred on this property. The burial ground became the final resting place of the founders of the historic church, former slaves who settled in historic Newtown.” She feels that paving over this property would be “highly insensitive to NYC’s African American community.” “Those buried are their ancestors, and they have a history and story to tell for present and future generations. It would set a very bad precedent for other historic cemeteries, big or small.” As for the developer, she said, “They pre-filed their plans on Sept 13, 2018, but as long as they do not have an agreement with the church, they cannot proceed legally with anything.”

The property became a highlight for walking tours and lectures. EHCPS contacted Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants in spring 2018, and their analysis furthered the site’s significance. Looking ahead, Giampino explained, “We would recommend Precision Radar Scanning to learn what lies beneath, not to disturb the graves, and we would also like to see what St. Marks AME Church wishes to learn about their ancestors. We would recommend a beautiful monument with known names that are buried, and of course dedicate the unknown, as well as designate it an official memorial park and cemetery site.”

McMenamin said, “I pray that this site can serve as a memorial and an educational opportunity, where students among the public can view artifacts and a slideshow, and have a garden to meditate and reflect. It was re-discovered for a purpose, hopefully not to be covered with concrete, and forgotten, but to embrace as a bold reminder, of the human experiences that struggled and thrived here, when in other parts of the country that was an impossibility.”

“Greed has become the hallmark of progress and success” according to EHCPS Secretary Jennifer Ochoa, who witnessed various un-landmarked local sites undergoing demolition. “The formation and development of African Americans’ self-identity as individuals, as a race, and as Americans has been stalled, and it is our moral obligation to honor their ancestors, as they were also part of our nation's history makers. We must confront the truth and learn from our history.” The site offers valuable lessons, especially for children. “Martha Peterson was my catalyst to explain the history of my family tree to my son, as in how diverse our tree is having blood from Native Americans to Africans to European. It is more important today to teach our children about our history and acceptance; not fear and ignorance.”

Ochoa called the site “sacred land on so many levels.” “The act, practice, and belief of burying our departed, in part, make us ‘humane beings’ with an advanced civilization. Furthermore, for our history and self-development, we must recognize the lives and achievements of those buried there. Elmhurst is rich in history, including the Native American experience that is always overlooked. If we want today’s accomplishments to be recognized, we must first resort to the past and preserve.”

A similar version of this feature story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: 

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