Community Members Urge NYC to Preserve African Burial Ground

New York City is preparing to facilitate the construction of an apartment building at an African burial ground in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition is fighting to protect this sacred ground and ensure that the community receives a meaningful opportunity to help determine the future of this space—especially Black and Indigenous communities, the rightful stewards of this site.

The Flatbush African Burial Ground is located at 2286 Church Avenue, on the corner of Church and Bedford Avenues in Brooklyn. It looks like a vacant lot at first glance, but this ground holds centuries of history reflecting the same conquests of white supremacy and colonization that shaped America as a whole. The neighborhood containing this burial ground occupies land on which the Canarsie and Munsee Lenape indigenous groups originally lived until they were ousted by European settlers in the 17th century. From 1654 until the mid-1800s, the lot was part of the Flatbush Reformed Church (still located at the west end of the block). Starting in the mid-1800s, the lot held a school building that was designated a New York City Landmark in 2007 and torn down due to structural integrity concerns in 2015.

Multiple excavations starting as early as the 1840s have found human remains at the Flatbush African Burial Ground site, and the northeast portion of the lot is shown as part of an African burial ground on an 1855 map of the area. Anthropological analysis of the remains conducted in 2001 confirmed that they were of African ancestry; since New York did not fully implement Emancipation until 1827 (and given that Flatbush was one of the largest sites of slaveholding in New York until that point), it is likely that some of these are the remains of enslaved Africans.

That discovery took place twenty years ago. Since then, even though the City owns this land, there has been no attempt to memorialize the burial ground or identify potential descendants of the people whose remains were found. In addition, it is not clear what was done with the remains that were found, or whether they were all treated with the respect they deserve—a respect that has historically been forsaken time and time again.

FABG Coalition organizer Shanna Sabio speaks in front of the Flatbush African Burial Ground.

Photo courtesy of Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition.

Now, the City has plans to build an apartment building on this sacred land, which they say will provide “affordable housing.” While this is a real need in New York City, additional affordable housing need not be placed at this particular site when the City owns nearly 5,000 lots across the five boroughs, many of which are vacant. The City has acknowledged that this is a problematic undertaking; in 2020, the City created a Flatbush African Burial Ground Remembrance and Redevelopment Task Force made up of local politicians, community figures, and historians, to make recommendations about how the development of this site can also memorialize its history and provide some community benefits. But the only possibilities the City is considering for this site—the only possibilities that the Task Force was presented with from the start—involve tearing up the soil and disrupting the burial ground to build an apartment building, with some form of memorial added on as an afterthought.

The Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition came together because its members could not just stand by and watch this burial ground be desecrated. The Coalition strongly believes that preserving this burial ground and ensuring that its stewardship be determined in an open, democratic process led by Black and Indigenous communities is the only way to treat this land and those buried here with respect.

Here’s how you can help:

More information available at https://www.growhousenyc.org/flatbush-african-burial-ground


This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.

About the Authors

Sahana Rao

Project Attorney, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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