By Eleana Tworek
ELEANA 1: The New York Housing Preservation and Development Department owns over 11,000 vacant lots.
ELEANA 2: I’m standing at the corner of Walton St. and Union Ave., Humboldt St. and Grand St. in South Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Vacant lot 2245 lot 149, 3097, lot 13, owned by, owned by, the New York Housing Department, HPD, the Housing Department of New York.
ELEANA 3: Many sound the same and look the same, wedged in between apartment buildings. Overgrown with weeds and littered with trash. But one lot has a secret.
On the corner of Bedford and Church Ave in Flatbush Brooklyn sits Brooklyn block 5103 lot 58. It’s across the street from a Shell gas station and flanked by Erasmus Hall High School and a parking lot. It’s a congested area commuters stand around leaning on the lot’s silver fence while waiting for the 535 bus.
Unlike the other HPD properties, community members have adorned the site with murals, handmade signs, and weavings.
ELEANA 4: Then we have a woven textile attached to the fence that says, “Underneath as above.” We have a big sign that says, “African graves matter, urgent not for sale.” And then we have this big sign also woven into the fence that says, “What is left?”
ELEANA 5: Lot 58 was a slave burial ground.
I’m Eleana Tworek, and this is Telling True Stories in Sound.
So, I’m going to take you through about 300 years of history in a matter of minutes. Back before there were five boroughs, each neighborhood in New York was essentially its own village settled by the Dutch in the early 1600s.
Slavery existed in New York City until 1827. Streets we recognize today, subway stops, and maybe even some of our favorite neighborhoods honor slaveholders. Delancey, Bleecker, Broome. And in Brooklyn, Lefferts, Voorhes, and Ditmas.
Labeled “Negro Burying Ground” on a map from 1855 that intersection on Church and Bedford shares a property boundary with the Dutch Reform Church giving us a glimpse into pre-abolition New York.
March 2, 1810, in the Long Island Star, an obituary reads, “In the house of her last master, Lawerence Voorhes, a negro woman named Eve, aged 110 years. She was born in the beginning of the last century, in the aforesaid village.”
It continues, “Her ordinary occupation during the summer months was, by her own choice, the dressing of a garden spot, and in this employment, in which she much delighted, she was still engaged the last summer of her life.” Eve is buried at lot 58.
Over the years, the site hosted a slew of schools, Flatbush School Number 1, P.S. 90, Yeshiva University Boys’ High School, and lastly, the Beth Rivkah Institute, which the city tore down in 2015 due to hazardous conditions.
It’s stood vacant ever since.
In October 2020, former Mayor, Bill de Blasio put out a press release. The city will build 130 public housing units on lot 58, complete with a memorialization of the burial ground.
SHANTELL 1: That’s disrespectful. You cannot memorialize and try to build something.
ELEANA 6: That’s Shantell Jones, co-lead of the Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition, a community organization formed to stop de Blasio and HPD. During the brunt of their fight last summer, the coalition staged protests and met with city officials to discuss lot 58’s future. Shantell felt unheard at one of the community meetings and posed a question that made HPD confront New York’s history.
SHANTELL 2: Have you ever heard of anyone building any type of structure on top of a Holocaust survivor site. They were like “No we’ve never heard that.” I said so why do you think it’s ok to do that on my ancestors?
ELEANA 7: To be clear, the coalition is not against affordable housing.
SHANTELL 3: We understand the need for housing, is imminent. We understand that. We are against building on top of sacred sites.
ELEANA 8: Shantell grew up in Flatbush.
SHANTELL 4: Like what there’s a burial ground right in the neighborhood of where I grew up? And I would walk past that site all the time and no one knew. I remembered when that site was vacant and there used to be parties held there. I was disgusted and angry because I always thought well I will have to go to a historical place somewhere in the South and actual experience evidence of what enslavement looked like.
ELEANA 9: Shantell’s been a member of the coalition ever since, taking over as lead in January of this year. During the mediation with HPD, she couldn’t help but point out the site’s seemingly spiritual powers.
SHANTELL 5: If you’ve noticed history and time with anything being built on that site, all of the school’s being built on that site, they naturally deteriorated out of nowhere.
ELEANA 10: It’s a sign from her ancestors, she says.
SHANTELL 6: That they are letting you know we don’t want this on top of us anymore.
ELEANA 11: To raise awareness, the coalition hosts walking tours. They invite anyone to come and learn lot 58’s history. It was there Shantell discovered that community elders, too, thought the site had some deeper magic. Erasmus Hall alums said they always thought their school was haunted. Reportedly hearing the clanging of chains and the sounds of whispers through the halls. But like Shantell, they knew nothing about the dark history of the lot next door.
“School Children, It Is Alleged, Carried Away Teeth as Souvenirs” reads the title of an article written in 1904 by the Brooklyn Times Union. While excavating a new sewer, workmen on Church and Bedford Ave discovered a skeleton at the same time PS 90 was getting out for the day. “A crowd of about 500 scholars and several men and women gathered, and considerable excitement prevailed for a time,”
“A number of boys picked up some of the large bones, and one boy, it is said, placed the skull on the end of a stick and paraded around with it. Several of the boys carried away the teeth as souvenirs.”
Samantha Bernardine is Shantell’s co-lead and currently teaches at Erasmus. Like Shantell, she didn’t know the history of the site until recently. In the months following the former mayor’s decision, Councilmember Matthieu Eugene of District 40 established a task force to gauge what the community wanted in the space—co-chaired by none other than current Mayor Eric Adams.The task force asked Erasmus to join since the school sits right next door. Samantha volunteered to take part. She found out remains existed at that site during that first zoom meeting when the city revealed its historical findings dating back to the 19th century. When bones were first uncovered in 1842 during the building of Flatbush School Number 1. Samantha was shocked.
SAMANTHA 1: It was disturbing the fact that the city was aware of this in 1800s and yet the building was still run as a school.
ELEANA 12: Hyper-local community government was also present. The neighborhood of Flatbush sits in community district 14. Shawn Campbell, the district manager, attended task force meetings to represent all of Flatbush’s interests—including the pressing need for housing.
SHAWN 1: The housing needs in community district 14 are serious. // We’re 165 thousand people in 2.9 square miles.
ELEANA 13: Shawn ran down the list. Out of 59 districts, Flatbush ranks 14th in severely rent overburdened households and 7th in overcrowded housing units. Yet, achieving housing security in Flatbush is more difficult than it seems due to the lack of vacant lots and historical landmarked districts that cannot be touched. Leading to the bigger issue.
SHAWN 2: There’s no public housing in Flatbush // This is one of the few districts with none.
ELANA 14: The Flatbush African Burial ground is only one of many overlooked slave cemeteries across the city. Currently, on Staten Island, a 7-eleven, Metro PCS, Santander Bank, and a Sherwin Williams are on top of ancestral remains. In Harlem on 126th street, there was an MTA bus depot. Samantha again.
SAMANTHA 2: Just shows again that we’re consistently disrespected. Our lives were never a consideration in this country. And that’s why people are so mad.
ELEANA 15: It’s been over a year since the coalition formed and seven months since the last task force meeting. The organizers anxiously waited as December neared, the proposed start date of development. The news came on December 14th as Shantell was leaving work. The city dropped its plan to build on lot 58. Shantell felt an overwhelming sense of relief.
SAMANTHA 3: I did cry because I didn’t think it would happen because after our last tour, our last call to action, our last anything it was radio silence from October all the way to December.
ELEANA 16: The next step is memorialization. What is going to go on lot 58? The coalition has yet to decide. Maybe a green space, maybe with some sort of educational element but Shantell and Samantha know they want it to be a community effort. Other coalitions that organized around lot 58 have other visions. Reverend Gregory Seal Livingston from African Graves Matter doesn’t like the idea of a green space.
REVEREND 1: No. It doesn’t need to be some kind of community farm. There’s other places we can farm, not on Church and Bedford.
ELEANA 17: He wants something similar to the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan. Yet, despite having different memorial visions, the coalitions have worked together because of the greater common goal. Reverend Livingston puts it into perspective.
REVEREND 2: I look at this African burial ground with urgency. How much longer do they have to lie there in disgrace and dishonor? How long is too long?
ELEANA 18: Green Space or not, one thing stands in their way, the new mayor. The office of mayor Adams hasn’t confirmed De Blasio’s concession so both African Graves Matter and the Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition prepare to fight once again. From time to time, Samantha needs a reminder of why she’s doing this. Occasionally after school, she walks down the block to the Romanesque-style Dutch Reform Church.
SAMANTHA 4: It’s like confronting your enslaver.
ELEANA 19: Samantha reads an engraving on one of the church buildings.
SAMANTHA 5: “Dedication to the glory of God and the service of mankind.”
ELEANA 20: And she can’t help but wonder.
SAMANTHA 6: How can you pray to a god saying that this is a service of mankind when I am a man, I am a woman and you have forced me into creating a world for you to benefit and for me to suffer. That’s not the God I serve.
ELEANA 21: It’s hard not to see the dichotomies between the church’s cemetery and lot 58 as Samantha and I overlook the rows and rows of tombstones dating back as far as New York itself. As we talk, construction workers finish their day’s work doing maintenance on the church’s facade.
SAMANTHA 7: Like you preserve that, but you can’t preserve our history? You know the hypocrisy of that
ELEANA 22: The coalition has made one decision when it comes to memorialization. To dedicate lot 58 in honor of their ancestors. Its name will be Eve’s Garden.