In Flatbush, the remarkably steepled Protestant Dutch Reformed Church and its adjacent cemetery, containing the remains of colonial-era elites, have proudly stood as a key stop on historic tours of Brooklyn. One block east, the remains of African slaves who constructed the church edifice have a less dignified resting place — an overgrown lot at the corner of Church and Bedford avenues, right behind the Erasmus High School campus.
Community leaders are now seeking to honor the former slaves as well, by elevating the status of their final resting place. Evidence of human remains at the 29,000-square-foot site was first discovered in the early 2000s. Through the newly-formed #Justice1654 Coalition, the activists hope to transform the lot into an African Memorial Burial Ground.
“There are unnamed, anonymous lots around this city with the bones of African men and women who have been forgotten, ignored, pushed aside,” said Coalition member Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston during a May 19 rally at the site to create awareness.
“Bones are here, in this overgrown lot with all these weeds, Livingston said. “We must not only desegregate the living, we must also desegregate the dead.”
“The site is located in our district, and there happens to be a great Haitian presence,” said Harriet Hines, a District 40 resident, council candidate and coalition leader. “As Black people, we all originate from Africa no matter where we’re from.”
Council District 40, which encompasses Erasmus and part of Flatbush, contains more than 13,000 people of Haitian ancestry, per Census data. The actual number is likely much higher than reported.
The May 19 rally and vigil at Bedford and Church was designed to call public attention to the significance of memorializing the burial site. Led by the speakers, attendees chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “African Graves Matter” at the event, held to coincide with the 96th birthday of the late activist Malcolm X.
In addition to a memorial, speakers said the lot at 2286 Church Ave. should have a maintained green space, to honor those buried there.
Burial ground vs competing interests
They’re up against a competing plan by city officials, including District 40 Council Member Mathieu Eugene, to build affordable housing and a youth services space at the site. That plan is also being designed to respect the African burial ground, per the task force website.
Under that city plan, a Flatbush Avenue Burial Ground Remembrance and Redevelopment Task Force is supposed to solicit proposals from developers by the end of this summer.
On May 22, the city is holding a virtual community workshop to discuss the proposed affordable housing development, with Haitian Creole translation. Residents are invited to share ideas and can register to speak by clicking here.
Organizers of the May 19 rally said affordable housing is needed in Brooklyn, but the lot isn’t the right use for this particular plot of land.
Robert Elstein, a local playwright and candidate for Brooklyn borough president, said he doubts the housing built there would be truly affordable for community residents.
Father Sheldon Hamblin, of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Flatbush, concurred.
“I am all for housing, however, we do not need housing in this space,” he said.
For the recently formed #Justice1654 Coalition, the immediate goal is to raise awareness among the public for a memorial, before going through the proper city government channels, Hines said.
“There would be some historical relevance to us as a community, to know where we came from, so we can also know where we’re going,” Hines said.
Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, for which Church Avenue is named, is revered for its role in establishing the Dutch settlement, Breuckelen, into a significant town eventually worthy of borough status.
To get involved in #Justice1654, contact Hines at Hhines2021@gmail.com.
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