It took two centuries for the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan to be remembered, when 18th century bones were found interred in a forgotten cemetery beneath the construction of a new high dollar federal development in 1991. While that long-overlooked cemetery is now remembered with a museum and monument, much less has been done to commemorate New York City’s Second African Burial Ground, and the dead deserve better.
If you go to the area between Stanton and Rivington along Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side, you’ll find busy basketball courts and a playground in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, but no sign that this used to be one of the only places for African-Americans to be buried between 1795 and 1843 in the city where the cemeteries were segregated. That is, except for the tranquil oasis that is the M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden, meaning “Garden at the Edge of the Other Side of the World” in the African language of Kikongo, which was started in 1983 as part of an effort to combat the park’s drug problem. It’s a beautiful, unexpected oasis for the Lower East Side, with winding paths around lush foliage and even the crowing of a rooster sounding from its coop. It takes its name from the forgotten burial ground as the sole tribute to this history.
As the New York Parks plaque affixed to the garden fence states:
In 1794, the African burial ground near City Hall was closed, and by October of that year, the Common Council of New York City received a “petition from the Sunday Black men of this City praying the aid of this board in purchasing a piece of ground for the internment of their dead.” By April, the land was granted in what was deemed “a proper place,” near the dilapidated ruin of James Delancey’s mansion. […] By the late 1700s, the growing population of the city forced northern expansion. The burial ground began to deteriorate, and in 1853, it closed forever. The human remains were disinterred, and the site was soon built over.
Well, more or less disinterred, as just as the common burial grounds of the potter’s fields such as Washington Square (where a tombstone was found in 2009) weren’t terribly meticulous with getting all the dead bodies out when they were relocated, there are doubts about how many of the bodies in the Second African Burial Ground were transported to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. If you read enough about cemetery relocations, it’s actually appalling, as sometimes only the headstones would be moved with a few skeletons, as if that was at all the point, or just a scattering of bodies. It’s unclear exactly how many people were buried in this area, with the estimate of some being 5,000, although there are only 485 interments on Find A Grave’s listing for the Cypress Hills plot.
While during Dutch rule cemeteries weren’t generally segregated by race, under British rule African-Americans were totally banned from burial in white cemeteries. In the Bowery Historic District’s National Register of Historic Places nomination application, the burial area is stated to have stretched to the present location of the New Museum, and on the M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden website, they write that “some remains were found during the excavation of the [New] Museum.” And there may be another reminder of the cemetery, as according to Joyce Mendelsohn’s The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited, the name of nearby Freeman Alley may even refer to the road that went to the burial ground.
St. Philip’s Church, which owned the burial ground at its closing, made an extensive documentary study in 2003 of the area in response to the proposed Second Avenue subway line that would go through an area that may still have human remains, particularly the west sidewalk on Chrystie between Stanton and Rivington. It wasn’t until 1809 that there was an ordinance that banned burials beneath streets and sidewalks, which was “a not uncommon practice.” As the report states “there is no evidence that any human remains were removed from the streetbed in 1809 (now the sidewalk area), if they were ever buried there,” and when the “cemetery was relocated in 1853, there is no guarantee that all remains were removed when the Rector, Church Wardens, and Vestry of St. Philip’s Church exhumed bodies and sold the property.” Even the MTA’s own report lists the area around the park as sensitive for the finding of remains (although really, if you look at the list, just about everywhere could have some burials from an old farmhouse or church).
The area became Sara D. Roosevelt Park in 1934, and while maybe at that point the burial ground wasn’t on the city’s radar, there is enough evidence to give these people a proper memorial. Let’s even theorize that every bone is gone, every shard of the people who were buried here was moved. Does that make it any less a place of memory? This is a place where people were buried in a city that wanted to forget them, on land that people could overlook, that they had to go “praying” to the city for to have a place to bury their dead, as that well-worn plaque states. At the very least we can reverse that and remember. If it took more than 200 years to bring the first African Burial Ground to a proper memorial, hopefully more can be done to recognize this place, and expand on the sense of community peace that the M’Finda Kalunga Garden has started.