Advocates Call on City to Landmark Elmhurst African Burial Ground

 Councilmembers Jumaane Williams (left) I. Daneek Miller (center) and Ydanis Rodriguez (right) condemn racist vandalism at the African Burial Ground Monument in Lower Manhattan. Photo courtesy of I. Daneek Miller.

Councilmembers Jumaane Williams (left) I. Daneek Miller (center) and Ydanis Rodriguez (right) condemn racist vandalism at the African Burial Ground Monument in Lower Manhattan. Photo courtesy of I. Daneek Miller.

By David Brand

Advocates in Elmhurst are calling on New York City to landmark the neighborhood's 300-year-old African Burial Ground — a mission that took on renewed importance after vandals scrawled racist messages on a Manhattan historic cemetery for African-Americans last week.

The Elmhurst cemetery is located at 47-11 90th Street and served as the final resting place for free African-Americans starting in 1828.

“This is an important survivor of a mostly forgotten history — of how the emancipated African-American population began to integrate into America and the challenges they faced even once slavery was officially abolished in New York State,” said Historic Districts Council (HDC) Executive Director Simeon Bankoff.

Bankoff said the history of African-Americans in the North is less well-known as in the South.

“This cemetery shows that history and is a powerful reminder of how our city was formed and who formed it,” he said.

He said the city is gradually beginning to recognize the contribution of African-Americans to the nearly 500-year history of New York City, with landmarks like the Sandy Ground Houses and Cemetery in Staten Island, which honors the region’s 19th Century black community, and various Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights-era locations.

In a letter, the HDC said the Elmhurst site would further that commitment.

“The Elmhurst site is incredibly culturally significant to our shared history, and, like most places of African-American history, is long neglected and cast aside,” the HDC said. “Designating this tiny surviving fragment would vow an act of parity and an official acknowledgement of the early, freed African-Americans in 19th Century Queens.”

 The first church building of the United African Church and Cemetery, founded in 1828 on the site of the African Burial Ground in Emlhurst. Photo courtesy of HDC.

The first church building of the United African Church and Cemetery, founded in 1828 on the site of the African Burial Ground in Emlhurst. Photo courtesy of HDC.

The organization, which advocates for landmark status for historic sites citywide, has urged Borough President Melinda Katz and local Councilmember Daniel Dromm to support the effort.

At the site, congregants established a branch of United African Society— what is today the African Methodist Episcopal Church. According to interment records, at least 310 people are buried at the cemetery, the Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society said.

The original church still exists, though it has moved to St. Mark’s A.M.E Church in Corona.

Relatively few city landmarks recognize the legacy and contributions of black New Yorkers throughout the city’s nearly 500-year history, the HDC said.

Those sites that do exist continue to face threats.

On Nov. 1, vandals scrawled racist message on the African Burial Ground Monument in Lower Manhattan. On Monday, Rodney Leon, the architect who designed the historic site, joined several local leaders, including Queens Councilmember I. Daneek Miller, to condemn the racist vandalism.

"Our city has never been immune to the disease of racism, and impressionable minds will always be susceptible to its rot," Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus co-chair Council Member I. Daneek Miller told the Eagle. “So long as we fail to keep watch for the change in the air and condemn prejudice, the thickening poison cloud of bigotry enveloping our city will choke us all.”

 An 1859 portion of a map of Newtown displays the presence of the African Cemetery and a chapel building. Photo courtesy of HDC.

An 1859 portion of a map of Newtown displays the presence of the African Cemetery and a chapel building. Photo courtesy of HDC.

Miller said that while the “desecration of the hallowed African Burial Ground” is painful to any person of conscience, the black community and those who champion equity will prevail.

“Despite our injury, we will not be intimidated by this depraved act, and demand justice,” he said.