By Mark Hallum
Volunteers arrived at the Olde Towne Flushing Burial Ground Wednesday to clean up the neglected cemetery, which holds the remains of African Americans, American Indians and the poor from 19th century society.
City Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing), Green Earth Urban Gardens President Maureen Regan and Eddy Abrams from the Olde Towne Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy held a news conference to discuss the historical importance of the land and to applaud the efforts of those offering their labor to uphold the dignity of the cemetery.
Koo funded the cleanup with $12,000 in parks equity funding.
It is estimated that there are about 1,000 people are buried in unmarked graves where visitors have mistaken the green space for a common park over a number of years.
“Our country has a long, dark history of slavery, racism and murder that we must never forget,” Koo said. “The Old Town Flushing Burial Ground intends to honor their lives. In maintaining these grounds, we let the bones beneath our feet know that the times have changed. However, I think we all know that we have much work still to do. For when we are all equal, we can begin to truly understand each other, and finally live among one another in peace.”
The town of Flushing first purchased the land for a public burial ground in 1840 and it became the place where the city’s marginalized residents were laid to rest. In 1914, it was turned over to the Parks Department, which made it into a playground in 1936 and the headstones were removed.
A revival came about when community activist and Bayside resident Mandingo Tshaka took a personal interest in the burial ground located on 46th Avenue between 164th and 165th streets, across from Flushing Cemetery. A movement began to reclaim the land in honor of the black people and American Indians who are still buried there in contradiction to the city administrative code pertaining to cemeteries in that there was no effort to relocate the bodies.
The last time the burial ground received proper attention was in August 2015, and the upkeep was long overdue. This was an extensive renovation spearheaded by Tshaka and executed by then Flushing Councilman John Liu. The burial ground still does not receive the regular maintenance it needs, but as a lawn mower drove across the open field and teenagers raked at the hedges Wednesday, onlookers could see the space shaping up.
Although it is not known where the original headstones ended up, the Parks Department built a memorial wall along the eastern edge of the grounds where there are at least two stones which been engraved with names and dates of death as a throwback to the days when actual markers for the dead existed.
Members of the conservancy are not pleased with the memorial wall because the stones are not held together with mortar, which means people move them around. According to the daughter of one member, the names in the stones are “bootleg,” or in some way false representation of who actually rests beneath the soil. The ultimate goal would be to push for a more prominent and secure monument.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall