After decades of advocacy from a local conservancy, the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground will undergo a $1.63 million transformation.
Last Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and local elected officials unveiled the redesign of the project, which will go before the Public Design Commission in November.
“Their memory could’ve been lost, but members of this community here in Flushing cared and fought to preserve the history,” he said. “To make sure this burial ground got the attention and focus it deserved, so future generations would learn that history.”
The commemorative plaza will feature a wall honoring the 500 to 1,000 people who were buried there in the 1800s. They were mostly African-Americans, Native Americans and people who died from cholera and smallpox epidemics throughout the mid-19th century, and were considered too contaminated to be buried at nearby Flushing Cemetery.
According to the conservancy, the last burial was in 1898, the same year that New York City was consolidated, and local governments like the Town of Flushing were absorbed.
The site, located on 46th Avenue between 164th and 165th streets, was given to the Parks Department in 1914. Two decades later, the city built a playground, and later, a wading pool and comfort station at the site.
It wasn’t until the 1980s when community activist Mandingo Tshaka and members of his church, Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church of Flushing, uncovered the history about the burial ground.
According to the Parks Department, the Bunn family, whose names appeared on the last remaining gravestones at the site, were parishioners of the church.
Tshaka worked with local elected officials to reclaim the site as a burial ground and relocate the playground to the northern end of the property.
In addition to the plaza, which will contain the engraved names of some of those buried there along with informational signage, the project will reconstruct the pathways to provide better circulation, add a butterfly garden and benches, and provide cardinal directions in a local Native American language.
The conservancy was heavily consulted for the redesign, the mayor said.
“This is part of how we heal the wounds of the past, to really recognize the history fully, to return the humanity to people who often had their human value stolen from them, who were treated as something less than equal,” de Blasio said. “To honor them with this kind of memory is absolutely crucial.
“It’s up to us to remember them, to give them the burial they deserved,” he added, “even centuries later.”
Borough President Melinda Katz, whose office allocated $600,000 for the project, said the project is about honoring and paying tribute to ancestors who were here before us.
It wasn’t an easy or simple process, she said. There were tough discussions, including debate about what to do with four tombstones that remained on site.
According to Katz, the Queens College urban studies department has been conducting research with the conservancy, and confirmed 318 names of people who were buried at the grounds. The memorial plaza will not only bear those names, but leave room for more as research continues.
“We’re standing on the shoulders of those that came before us,” Katz said. “If we can’t pay respect to those individuals, then it is hard to foresee a valuable future.”
Councilman Peter Koo funded the last third of the project.
Robbie Garrison, co-chair of the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy, said she’s grateful that the 500 to 1,000 people who were buried here will be recognized and memorialized.
The burial ground, listed on the New York State and National Registry of Historic Places, will forever be part of Flushing and New York City’s official history.
“This will be a teaching site as well as a long-needed memorial to the forgotten souls interred here and so long disrespected,” she said. “We know that our work is not done, but now we are all working together to the same end, it just feels a lot better.”