Importance of Local History – the African Burial Ground at Van Cortlandt Park

Home Forums The Colonial Era Importance of Local History – the African Burial Ground at Van Cortlandt Park

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    • #1989
      ndembowski
      Keymaster

      This June 19th, or Juneteenth, the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance and the Enslaved People Project Task Force Steering Committee will host the consecration of the African burial ground in Van Cortlandt Park.  Due to Covid restrictions, the event is invite-only but will be live-streamed; a recording of the event will be made available on the VCPA website and here as well.  The Rev. Dr. Hermon L. Darden from St. Stephen’s Methodist Church will offer prayers and there will be a number of speakers and musical performances.  No doubt, the official acknowledgement of this burial ground will do much to strengthen the connection of the African American community to our area and its history.

      But, lest it remain untold, I just want to highlight the role of local historians in making this all possible.  In 1883, Thomas Henry Edsall, the area’s first local historian, made transcriptions of the headstones in the Kingsbridge Burial Ground (where local European colonists were buried). But he was also the first to include mention of the adjacent “negro” burial ground in a written history.  At the turn of the 20th century, several other local historians also mentioned it in their writing.  However, all memory and mention of the site had nearly vanished by the late 20th century, except of course at the Kingsbridge Historical Society.

      Bottle discovered at archaeological dig in Van Cortlandt in the early 90s.

      Many outside scholars and organizations have written about the history of Van Cortlandt Park.  In the early 1990s, a team from Brooklyn College conducted an archaeological dig around the Van Cortlandt House and environs.  The resulting paper, “The Archaeology of Slavery of Van Cortlandt Park,” makes no reference to the burial ground area.  In 2003, the Historic House Trust commissioned a “Cultural Landscape Survey” of the park.  It was 192 pages and meant to be definitive and yet, makes no reference to the burial ground.  In 2012, the Bronx County Historical Society published “Blacks in the Colonial Bronx A Documentary History.”  This too failed to mention the burial ground.  It would not have taken much more than a phone call to the KHS to get the story and at least mention it in the above histories.

      In the 1990s, NYC Parks floated the idea of constructing a “dog run” on the grounds of what is now being called the “African Burial Ground” in Van Cortlandt Park.  It was KHS President, Peter Ostrander, that informed NYC Parks of the historic nature of the burial site and they thought better of it.  Peter led a fight in the 1990s to bring recognition to this part of the park, one of New York City’s most historic and best preserved areas–making the KHS a royal pain in the neck to NYC Parks’ planners.

      Peter’s refusal to let our history get paved over without a fight earned the KHS the moniker “Kingsbridge Hysterical Society”–a term muttered at more than one meeting I am told.  I caught a glimpse of that attitude myself in 2018 when I told NYC Parks administration that there should be an archaeological study of the burial ground area before the Putnam Trail was allowed to be paved.  My request came at a time when they had finally gotten permission to pave the trail after many years of trying, so, to be fair, it was not the most convenient time to request an archaeological study.

      The ground-penetrating radar performed in 2019 found evidence of burials under the path in the foreground.  It has since been closed off and planted after protestations by a local activist, DePrator.

      Former Van Cortlandt Park administrator, Margot Perron, arranged to have a ground-penetrating radar team brought to the burial ground area where they found evidence consistent with a burial site.  In fact, evidence of burials was even discovered under a short park path outside the fenced off area of the Kingsbridge Burial Ground.  This resulted in the closing of that short path (in 2021) at the determined insistence of DePrator, a local activist, and the swift action of VCP Administrator Stephanie Ehrlich and VCP Alliance Program Director, Christina Taylor–and additional support from Bronx NYC Parks Commissioner, Iris Rodriguez-Rosa.  DePrator learned about the site while on a KHS tour.   Earlier, a sign was installed to mark the Kingsbridge Burial Ground (text written by the KHS).  The KHS has also produced a draft, with the help of passionate local activists DePrator and Jacki Fischer, for signage at the African Burial Ground and it awaits NYC Parks approval.  We have also recently written lesson plans for local teachers (with the sponsorship of Community Board 8 and our partners at the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance and Laura Carpenter-Myers at the Van Cortlandt House Museum).   We drafted the text of an audio tour about the history of enslaved Africans in the park (to be released shortly by the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance after much hard work on the part of Christina and Stephanie).

      Considering how underfunded and short-staffed NYC Parks is, the KHS can be proud of its role in getting signage installed and for promoting the park’s history as one of its defining features. We are lucky to now have the current administration and leadership of the Alliance, especially Stephanie Ehrlich and Christina Taylor, who are excited about highlighting this history when administrations of long ago have been resistant. But even as leadership at the park will inevitably change, the KHS will remain to preserve and expand the scope of the neighborhood’s rich history–with the help of our members and other community members.  Without the work of local historians, there would be no African Burial Ground to consecrate in Van Cortlandt Park, just another day at the dog run.

      “To Lose Our History is to Lose Our Destiny” –KHS Motto

      [Correction – A previous version of this post failed to name the Van Cortlandt Park and Van Cortlandt Park Alliance administrators, whose work has been pivotal in making the burial ground consecration possible–in addition to their many other contributions.  I apologize for the omission.]

    • #1990
      Thomas Casey
      Participant

      The African Burial grounds was mentioned in the The Borough of the Bronx by Harry Cook .   The Van Cortlandt’s had many slaves that were buried locally.Slave adSlave Burial location - Slave Notice

    • #1991
      Thomas Casey
      Participant

      Slave Ad

    • #1992
      COGGINSS
      Participant

      Do we know when it will be televised and live streamed, and on which channel? Thanks very much.

    • #1993
      ndembowski
      Keymaster

      The event is set to begin at 11 AM.  The Van Cortlandt Park Alliance is coordinating it and as soon as they release the details on the live-streaming I will post them here.

    • #1994
      COGGINSS
      Participant

      Thanks Nick.

    • #1995

      Thanks for keeping us informed of these events, Nick. I usually work Saturdays, or I would love to attend!

      Viv Carter

    • #1996
      ndembowski
      Keymaster

      The event will be live-streamed by the Van Cortlandt Alliance, the event organizers, on June 19th at 11:00 AM at https://www.facebook.com/vcpalliance/live

      You will not need a Facebook account to watch.

      It does not look like it will be on television at this point.

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