Mayor Bill de Blasio joined Borough President Melinda Katz, local elected officials, and community members on Oct. 26 to unveil designs of a $1.63 million project to reconstruct a commemorative plaza at the site of The Old Towne of Flushing Burial Ground.
“As Queens week draws to an end, we’re commemorating an important part of our history and the vision of this community, which worked hard to get recognition for this site,” said de Blasio at the Burial Ground located on 46th Avenue between 164th and 165th Streets.
After years of advocating for recognition to memorialize and honor nearly 1,000 Native Americans and African Americans buried at the sacred site in the 1800s, members of the Old Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy believes the site is as much a part of Flushing history as any other mentioned.
The site is now listed on the New York State and National Registry of Historic Places, Robbie Garrison, co-chair of The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy.
“Native Americans and African Americans have been in Flushing since Queens was established,” said Garrison. “This will be a teaching site as well as a long-needed memorial to the forgotten souls interred here and so long disrespected.”
In the 1930s, headstones were destroyed in the burial ground when it was redeveloped into a playground by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.
In November 2006, community activist Mandingo Tshaka, who had been fighting for recognition for nearly 10 years, and former City Councilman John Liu, reclaimed the site relocating the playground to the northern end of the site. A ground-level plaque was installed to commemorate those buried there.
According to the conservancy, the community didn’t recognize the site as a cemetery and used it for inappropriate activities, such as ignoring the “no dogs allowed” sign and holding sports practices.
The restoration project received unanimous approval from Community Board 7 for the Parks Department to reconstruct 1.6 acres of the 3.5-acre burial site.
“We are thrilled that this project is coming to fruition with today’s design unveiling. We are happy with the design, which honors the people that are interred here and have never been acknowledged before,” said Eugene Kelty Jr., chair of Queens Community Board 7.
There will be a commemorative plaza, reconstructed pathways to provide better circulation throughout the site, a wall honoring those buried with their names engraved, and an interpretative sign to provide historical information about the site.
A butterfly garden will be added with new benches and plantings to create an area of tranquility for all visitors, surrounded by cardinal directions written in a local Native American Language.
“I’ve been following the plan and how it’s evolved and it’s a very good revision of what had initially occurred,” said Richard Hourahan of the Queens Historical Society. “It’s wonderful. A lot of the history is being improved upon…they did the best they could 10 years ago, but it’s going to be a lot better now.”
The design, scheduled to go before the Public Design Commission in November, was created in consultation with local community members and the Old Towne of Flushing Burial Ground. It received $1.62 million in funding including $600,000 from Katz, $520,000 from City Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing), and an additional $500,000 from de Blasio.
In the 1990s, when the Parks Department began a renovation of the site, Tshaka drew attention to its previous history. In response, Parks commissioned a $50,000 archeological study in 1996. Archeologist Linda Stone concluded that the site served as the final resting place for between 500 to 1,000 individuals.
According to the Parks Department, death records for the town of Flushing existed from the period of 1881 until 1898, revealing 62 percent of the buried were African American or Native American, 34 percent were unidentified, and more than half were children under the age of 5.
“The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground is a hidden gem in our community that has been deprived of the recognition it deserves for decades,” said Koo. “With this memorial, we let the bones beneath our feet know that times have changed and the disrespect and dishonor they received in life no longer carries over into death.”