2018-11-28 / Features

Elmhurst Preservation Group Seeks To Landmark African-American Burial Ground

BY JASON D. ANTOS

The dirt lot at 47-11 90th Street in Elmhurst.  (GOOGLE EARTH)The dirt lot at 47-11 90th Street in Elmhurst. (GOOGLE EARTH)Underneath a muddy desolate back lot near 47-11 90th Street in Elmhurst exists a forgotten cemetery. Almost two centuries ago, African-American residents of what was then known as Newtown buried their family and friends in this sacred place of eternal rest.

A sacred place now occupied by garbage trucks and a dumpster.

Enter the Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society, a local civic group leading the effort to have this burial ground saved and recognized for future generations.

The group is petitioning to make the site a historical landmark claiming that the lot, which is soon to become a construction site, was the original location of St. Mark’s AME Church founded in 1830 by the first generation of free African-Americans.

News first came of the African American burial ground in 2011, when construction crews A view from the 1859 Beers Atlas showing the exact location of the burial ground and original location of the AME Church. A view from the 1859 Beers Atlas showing the exact location of the burial ground and original location of the AME Church. unearthed the remains of a young woman whose body was well preserved. At the time, authorities thought it was a homicide. Archeologists soon learned that the woman, identified as Martha Peterson, had died in the 1850s at the age of 26. The discovery also marked a rare find for the body had been buried in a coffin made of iron. Manufactured for less than a decade, they were invented by stove maker Almond Dunbar Fisk and they were noted for its excellence in being formfitting and airtight, locking out air and preventing corruption of the body. Iron coffins were manufactured for only a decade, so to find one in Elmhurst of all places made this a very significant historic discovery. The rare use of an iron coffin in this case was due to the fact that Peterson had died of smallpox, a very contagious and fatal disease at the time. Her story was featured in a PBS documentary, The Woman in The Iron Coffin.

Currently, the Elmhurst History & Cemeteries Preservation Society seeks to preserve and recognize this site for future generations.

According to the Elmhurst History & Cemeteries Preservation Society, a total of 310 burials were made in the cemetery. Some burials have been removed but numerous remains are still at the site. The society stated that the African American community in Elmhurst traces backs to the time of slavery in the late 1600s.  

In 1828 a parcel of land was donated to former slaves who were members of the United African Society (later known as St. Mark's AME Church) one year after slavery was abolished in New York State. The first African American church, parsonage, school and cemetery were set up at this site. Elmhurst had a free African American community living, working and worshiping in this particular area of Newtown. 

In 1914, Booker T. Washington came to speak in Elmhurst to help raise funds for the St. Mark's AME church.

The goal of the society is to make the site a NYC Landmark and for it to be placed under the National Register of Historic Places.

More information, inclduing a petition to save the burial ground, can be viewed here. http://hdc.org/featured/landmark-the-elmhurst-african-burial-ground

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