African Burial Ground, Flatbush

Detail from an 1855 map showing the Negro Burying Ground situated between District School No. 1 and the Town Pound, at what is now the junction of Bedford and Church avenues in Flatbush

In 1810, the Long Island Star published an obituary for “a negro woman named Eve, aged near 110 years,” who died in the village of Flatbush. At the time of her death, Eve was enslaved to Lawrence Voorhes, one of the largest slaveholders in Flatbush as well as in all of Kings County. Slavery was widespread among the Dutch families of Kings County who depended heavily on enslaved black laborers to work their land. At the first U.S. census in 1790, slaves accounted for one-third of the total population of Kings County and two-fifths of Flatbush’s population. Eve might have been among the 13 slaves enumerated in Lawrence Voorhes’ household in the 1800 census, which did not list slaves individually by name.

Obituary of the enslaved woman Eve, who was buried in Flatbush’s African burial ground in 1810

Eve’s obituary notes that “her remains were piously interred in the African burying ground of the village of Flatbush, attended by a great concourse of the people of colour.” An 1855 map of Flatbush depicts the “Negro Burying Ground” at what is now the junction of Bedford and Church avenues. It was just east of the main village that centered around the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church—still standing one block to the west on Flatbush and Church avenues—and was adjacent to the Town Pound where horses, cattle, and other animals were confined. Little more is known of this burial ground, which may have been established soon after the arrival of slaves in Flatbush in the 17th century and used by Flatbush’s African American community into the mid-19th century. 

An 1873 map of Flatbush shows the Reformed Dutch Church property north of Holy Cross Cemetery where remains from the African burial ground might have been relocated.

In his 1884 history of Kings County, Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles writes that the “colored people’s burying-ground” of Flatbush, located on property owned by the Reformed Dutch Church, was removed when Bedford Avenue was laid out in 1865 and the remains reinterred at “a new burying-ground in another section of the Reformed Church land, at the northeast corner of the cemetery of the Holy Cross.” Some have interpreted Stiles’ statement to mean that the remains were reinterred in Holy Cross Cemetery, the Catholic cemetery founded in Flatbush in 1849. However, Holy Cross Cemetery has no record that remains from the African burial ground were interred there and it’s unlikely that they would have been removed to this Catholic burial ground. It’s more likely Stiles’ statement refers to Reformed Dutch Church property that is shown adjacent to the northern boundary of Holy Cross Cemetery on several 19th-century maps, and that the remains might have been reburied somewhere on this land. Whatever the case may be, no evidence of a reburial site can be found today.

1904 newspaper clipping reporting the discovery of a skeleton that may have been associated with Flatbush’s African burial ground

It’s possible that traces of Flatbush’s African burial ground still exist at the junction of Church and Bedford avenues, where human remains have been discovered on several occasions. Workmen unearthed skeletons at the site during sewer construction in 1890 and again in 1904.  Local historians have also suggested that the Flatbush District School No.1, erected in 1842 at the southwest corner of Bedford and Church avenues, was built on part of the African burial ground and that graves were disturbed when the school was constructed. This site was later occupied by Public School 90, which the city demolished in 2015 for safety reasons. When the city was considering reusing the then-vacant school building in the early 2000s, archaeologists conducted test excavations to determine if any evidence of a cemetery could be found on the school grounds; although they located no graves, they did recover four human teeth and fragments of a mandible that might have been associated with the African burial ground. The P.S. 90 school site is currently slated for development into an affordable housing and community space; a task force has been established to handle any remains that may be discovered and to consider potential memorialization of the history of the site.

A 2018 aerial view of Bedford and Church avenues in Flatbush; arrow indicates approximate location of the African burial ground; the vacant lot at the southwest corner of Church and Bedford avenues is the former P.S. 90 site slated for redevelopment; the historic Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church can be seen one block west at Flatbush Avenue

Sources: Map of part of the town of Flatbush, made for the commissioners for assessing expenses on the opening of Flatbush Avenue (Bergen 1855); Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 20; “Died,” Long Island Star, Mar 29, 1810; United States Census, 1800, FamilySearch; The Civil, Political, Professional and Ecclesiastical History and Commercial and Industrial Record of the County of Kings and the City of Brooklyn, New York, From 1683 to 1884. Vol. 1 (Stiles 1884); “Flatbush News,” Brooklyn Citizen, Dec 6, 1890; “Skeleton Makes Sport for the Boys of No. 90,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 18, 1904; “Dug Up Skeleton,” Brooklyn Times Union, Nov 18, 1904; “Irreverent Schoolboys Capture a Skeleton and Play Pranks with the Bones,” New York Sun, Nov 19, 1904; “Skull in the Attic, A Flatbush Mystery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 27, 1935; “Flatbush Village School,” Flatbush Magazine, Sept 1938; Of Cabbages and Kings County: Agriculture and the Formation of Modern Brooklyn (Linder & Zacharias 1999); Stage IA Archaeological Assessment, Beth Rivka School, Flatbush, Brooklyn (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2000); Stage IB Archaeological Investigation P.S.325-K, Church and Bedford Avenues, Brooklyn (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2001); Flatbush District No. 1 School Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 2007); Mayor de Blasio and Council Member Eugene Announce Plans to Transform Flatbush Site into Affordable Housing (Office of the Mayor—Press Release, Oct 9, 2020);  Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020); NYC Then&Now

2 thoughts on “African Burial Ground, Flatbush”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s