A vacant lot in Flatbush once used as a burial ground for African slaves has become a hot spot for community engagement and historical education over the past few months.
The lot, at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Church Avenue, has been vacant since 2015. It is adjacent to the Erasmus Hall Educational Campus and was the site of the Flatbush District No. 1 School, P.S. 90 and the Beth Rivkah Institute.
While the city plans to build affordable housing on the lot, activists have formed a coalition to educate the community on the land’s history, with hopes of halting development.
“The community is already over developed,” said Corazon Valiente, a Flatbush resident and member of the Bedford-Church African Burial Ground Coalition.
“It’d be nice to just have a break from the constant construction, and these random high rises they say are affordable, but aren’t really for the people that live in the neighborhood.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and local politicians Mathieu Eugene and Eric Adams announced plans in October 2020 for the lot to be developed into high-rise affordable housing. They also created a task force to address the lot’s history as an African burial ground.
But activists say the task force was created without true involvement from the community, and the town hall meetings hosted by the task force are not well attended.
“I would just like the actual community to have the chance to democratically vote about what they’d like to see there,” Valiente said.
In March, local community organizations published an op-ed in the Gotham Gazette expressing their desire for a community farm and green space on the lot.
Shortly after, the Bedford-Church African Burial Ground Coalition was formed. Coalition founders Marion Yuen and Natalia Sucre say they’re in the process of shifting leadership of the coalition to Black and Indigenous activists.
The coalition hosts walking tours of the area surrounding the lot, including the cemetery at the nearby Flatbush Reformed Church, where more remains of African slaves were buried.
“What we’re fighting for basically in doing these walking tours is for the city to not build on this land,” said Shanna Sabio, a coalition member who hosts the tours.
The tours emphasize the indigenous Lenape people who lived in the area and share information on the largely unspoken history of slavery in New York City.
Proof of the lot’s history as a burial ground include the 1810 obituary of an enslaved woman named Eve and bones found during multiple excavations of the site.
Teacher and activist Shantelle Jones who attended the tour said she grew up in the area but had no idea of the lot’s history as a burial ground. “I always thought, ‘Oh, I gotta travel down south to see something like this,'” Jones said.
“This is in my backyard, literally. So, I need to do something about it. I can’t sit here and complain about other people occupying black spaces and not do anything about it.”
The coalition hopes to leave an impact on the community even if they cannot stop development of the land.
“I would like to believe that the outreach that we did can show the city that we can mobilize, and we can make a loud voice. And then also show the other residents of the community that they can do it too.”
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