188-Year-Old African, Native American Cemetery Established In Flushing
The former Martin’s Field, a final resting place for almost 1,000 African, Native and Caucasian Americans, was officially established as The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground on May 23 in a ceremony that was attended by city Comptroller John Liu, City Councilmember Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), Assemblymember Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), Councilmember Peter Koo (R-Flushing) and representatives of Assemblymember Grace Meng (D-Flushing).
The former city Department of Parks and Recreation playground located between 164th and 165th Streets and 45th and 46th Avenues in Flushing was originally a municipal cemetery that dates back to 1822.
On Nov. 18, 2006, with the help of Borough President Helen Marshall, the playground was reclaimed and in December 2009 it was relocated to the northern end of the three and one half acre property. A marble slab providing a brief history of the cemetery along with some of the names of those who are buried was placed in the ground.
“We need to remember that those buried here were affected by slavery and discrimination,” Liu said. “This special place serves as a reminder of our past and how far we’ve come as a nation.”
Also present were community activists from the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy, including President Mandingo Tshaka, Vice President Robbie Garrison and Treasurer Eddie Abrams who fought for almost 20 years to reclaim the park from the city and return it to its original status as a cemetery.
The site was blessed by the Sachem of the Matinecock Nation, Sonny Little Fox, who performed a traditional Native American tribute ceremony.
“Today we are gathered here to remember those buried in this final resting place,” Fox said. “I do not believe in color or race, but I believe that we have to love and respect one another.”
The Conservancy feels, however, that the present memorial is not adequate because of the absence of headstones, which has confused some local residents as to the true identity of the former playground.
“This site is still referred to as a park and this has to change,” Tshaka said. “This was an active playground that has been moved to the north of where we are standing. This is now a holy site.”
Tshaka’s concern is over the constant use of the memorial site as a playground where children have been seen riding their bikes across the names of the deceased and a place where neighbors walk their dogs, who urinate on the sacred site.
“You can hear the people buried crying out to us for justice,” Garrison said. “The current monument does not respect our dead.”
The land was initially a burial site for victims of plagues such as smallpox, cholera and yellow fever. From 1822 until the 1870s neighborhoods in Queens were greatly affected by these illnesses until a centralized water system was introduced. Purchased by the Town of Flushing in 1840, the site is home to approximately 800 to 1,000 individuals buried over several decades, the majority of whom were African-Americans and Native Americans. There were also a number of poor whites who, along with wealthier residents, died during the cholera and smallpox epidemics in 1840, 1844, 1857 and 1867, buried as well. Their bodies were considered too contaminated for a proper churchyard burial. Half of those buried are children five years old or younger.
“The African Americans who worked the fields of Flushing as slaves from Francis Lewis’ farm to the farm that once stood in this spot worked hard and wanted to make a difference and want us to remember what they went through,” Halloran said.
According to Tshaka, the plots were indiscriminately arranged, often, unmarked and as shallow as six inches below the surface. The last burial was in 1898, the year of the city’s consolidation.
In 1914, the site was handed over to the city Dept. of Parks and Recreation. In 1931, it was renamed Martin’s Field in honor of tree conservationist Everett P. Martin. In 1936, a playground was built on the site as a government-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. In the 1940s a comfort station, wading pool and sand pit were added. According to an article from the defunct Long Island Press dated June 10, 1936, it was reported that “neighbors saw workmen pulling bones out of the ground”, and that workmen from the WPA “came upon bones galore”.
Pennies were also discovered inside the eye sockets of retrieved skulls. Placing pennies on the eyes of the dead is an African burial tradition, explained Abrams.
The future goal is for the city Dept. of Parks and Recreation to install an obelisk and four small headstones in the three and one half acre park that will replace the original tombstones that were removed by the WPA in the 1930s. The tombs would serve as an everlasting reminder that the land is indeed a cemetery.
“This land is a cemetery and will always be a cemetery,” Garrison said.
The original tombstones were those of Willie, son of Alfred and Fanny Curry who died at four years of age in 1874 and George H. Bunn, who died Jan. 13, 1887 at the age of 17 and Alfred E. Bunn who died at three years of age on Apr. 7, 1876. The final tombstone belonged to the grave of James Bunn, who died on Aug. 3, 1890 at the age of 53. All tombstones were made of marble and listed as being in good condition in an Oct. 10, 1919 survey conducted by the Queens Topographical Bureau that listed the land as the “Colored Cemetery of Flushing”.
Jay Williams a 78-year-old Flushing resident is a descendent of the Bunn Family. “My mother was a Bunn and a member of the Shinecock tribe,” Williams remembered.
Williams said that he was happy that the site has finally been established as a cemetery, but feels that the headstones are necessary.
“It’s a start,” Williams said. “I hope any future memorial recognizes what happened here.”
“We will continue with the struggle to preserve this holy site,” Liu said.