The African Burial Ground at 47-11 90th Street in Elmhurst that dates back to the 19th century is one of those. It is situated on a piece of property that was de-mapped by the city in 1931.
It may soon be home to a five-story residential building, but the Elmhurst History & Cemeteries Preservation Society (EHCPS) is spearheading an initiative to have the culturally significant site preserved by granting it city landmark status.
“The first step is to protect the burial ground so it can be officially recognized for its sensitive and important history, as well as a respected final resting place of the free African American community of Newtown,” said EHCPS President Marialena Giampino.
The effort is supported by the Historic Districts Council, Queens Preservation Council, Corona-East Elmhurst Historic Preservation Society, and Queens Community Board 4.
“Only landmark designation can protect the historical integrity of the site in perpetuity,” said Mitchell Grubler, president of the Queens Preservation Council. “The local community should have a voice in what happens to the property.”
Newtown, as Elmhurst was once known, was one of the first free African American communities. Residents owned land, and their community included a church, cemetery, and school, as well as homes and shops.
The Burial Ground officially originated in 1828, a year after the abolition of slavery in New York, but is rumored to have even earlier origins.
The site once contained a church and parsonage for St. Mark’s American Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1928, the church was forced to relocate to Corona, where it still is today, when the city decided to widen Corona Avenue.
However, their request to transfer all burials to Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth was denied.
Mt. Olivet records show that 20 burials were eventually transferred to two of their plots, but there was an estimated 300 buried in the cemetery as of 1886, when the church requested assistance in repairing and enclosing the site.
In 2011, the remains of Martha Peterson, a 26-year-old African American dubbed the Iron Coffin Lady who died in the smallpox epidemic of 1850, were discovered on the site.
“When the site was being prepared for construction, the backhoe dug into something that made a loud noise,” explained Giampino. “The construction crew saw human feet and immediately called 911. If it wasn't for the Martha Peterson discovery, the public would not be aware of the site and a direct link to Newtown history.”
The airtight iron coffin was invented in 1848 by a stove manufacturer named Almond Dunbar Fisk. Due to its high cost, it was typically used by the wealthy. In fact, Peterson was the daughter of John and Jane Peterson, well-respected African American figures in Newtown.
Peterson received a proper re-burial in 2016 at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.
“It appears to be vacant land, but human remains are still interred on this property,” said Giampino. “The burial ground became the final resting place of the former slaves who settled in historic Newtown.”
According to Giampino, the developer filed plans with the city in September, but until they have an agreement with the church they cannot proceed with any work.
“Those buried have a history and story to tell for present and future generations,” she added. “It would set a very bad precedent for other historic cemeteries, big or small.”
EHCPS hired Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants in spring 2018 to study the site, and its analysis furthered the site’s significance.
“We would recommend radar scanning to learn what lies beneath without disturbing the graves,” said Gaimpino. “We would also like to see what St. Marks AME Church wishes to learn about their ancestors.”
“I pray that this site can serve as a memorial and an educational opportunity, where students and the public can view artifacts and have a garden to meditate and reflect,” added EHCPS vice president James McMenamin. “It was re-discovered for a purpose, not to be covered with concrete and forgotten, but as a bold reminder of the human experiences that struggled and thrived here when in other parts of the country that was an impossibility.”
“Greed has become the hallmark of progress and success” according to EHCPS Secretary Jennifer Ochoa, who witnessed various un-landmarked local sites undergoing demolition. “The formation and development of African Americans’ self-identity as individuals, as a race, and as Americans has been stalled, and it is our moral obligation to honor their ancestors, as they were also part of our nation's history makers. We must confront the truth and learn from our history.” The site offers valuable lessons, especially for children. “Martha Peterson was my catalyst to explain the history of my family tree to my son, as in how diverse our tree is having blood from Native Americans to Africans to European. It is more important today to teach our children about our history and acceptance; not fear and ignorance.”
Ochoa called the site “sacred land on so many levels.” “The act, practice, and belief of burying our departed, in part, make us ‘humane beings’ with an advanced civilization. Furthermore, for our history and self-development, we must recognize the lives and achievements of those buried there. Elmhurst is rich in history, including the Native American experience that is always overlooked. If we want today’s accomplishments to be recognized, we must first resort to the past and preserve.”