Major online archives of accessible images have become regular news out of museums, and part of the reason is stories like this: elementary school kids in the South Bronx have used a photograph from one of those archives to bring about historic recognition for a long-forgotten slave burial ground.
On January 24, students and staff of PS 48 joined state elected officials and other leaders from the community for a public call to action to give the recently rediscovered cemetery state historic listing, and hopefully national attention. The Hunts Point cemetery was unearthed through a photograph in the Museum of the City of New York’s Collections Portal online. Marked simply “Slave burying ground, Hunts Point Road” and dated to 1910, the washed-out photograph shows a few simple tombstones amid a tumble of dry grass and spindly trees.
According to the New York Times, Philip Panaritis, who works for the city’s Education Department, alerted Justin Czarka, a teacher at PS 48, to the photograph. The school sits just a few blocks from the location in the picture (although Hunts Point Road no longer exists). Panaritis oversees the Teaching American History federally granted program for the Bronx, and through it the students were soon delving into old records at Huntington Free Library, archive maps, and census information, as well as analyzing photographs for the angle of the sun to pinpoint the location of the burial ground.
They determined that it must be just outside of nearby Joseph Rodman Drake Park, which has an 18th-century cemetery within its gate. The white members of land-owning families interred there have their names etched on standing stones, while the buried slaves who likely served them were forgotten when the land was turned into a park in 1915. Last summer, following the research from PS 48, US Department of Agriculture scientists confirmed via radar that there are probably “anthropogenic features,” or human remains, in the area sited by the students.
As State Senator Jeffrey D. Klein stated at last month’s call for recognition: “For over 100 years, the sacred African slave burial ground in Drake Park has been treated as anything but — with grass, asphalt, and dirt covering the historic remnants of slaves in this area.”
Sadly, this isn’t the only African-American burial ground to be almost totally buried under the history of New York City. It isn’t even the only one currently in the news. An MTA bus depot in East Harlem might close this year in order to respect the slave burial ground located beneath its structure, which was revealed back in 2008 when workers on the Willis Avenue Bridge uncovered human remains. Meanwhile, in Queens, a church and a condo are battling for land that was once a 19th-century freed slaves burial ground. Saint Marks A.M.E. Church, formerly the United African Society, is rallying to stop the condo construction, after it revealed an iron casket in 2011 and subsequent remains. However, Elisabeth de Bourbon of the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission told the New York Daily News that there’s no requirement for the bones of the dead to be moved from places like this if they’re not crime scenes.
These cemeteries represent a whole history that’s been severed from the city. While the Lower Manhattan African burial ground did receive a museum and monument in 2007, there are still others that remain invisible, such as the Second African Burial Ground on the Lower East Side. Hopefully some of this historical loss can be corrected with continued attention, and with dedicated researchers like the students of PS 48.