Place Category: Parks and Playgrounds
The Queens Department of Parks acquired this property on December 2, 1914 at which time the land served as a ‘town commons’ or ‘green’ for the neighborhood. In 1936, under the leadership of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1888-1981), a portion of the park was developed for the purpose of creating a more active recreation site for children. At that time, Moses—who commanded thousands of Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers—built a modern playground here. During the excavation, WPA workers came upon evidence of the site’s previous use as a burial ground, including pennies placed upon the eyes of the dead—an archaic burial practice that was also observed in excavations of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan.
By 1938, the new playground, complete with a wading pool, baseball field, and swing sets, opened to the public. Meanwhile the WPA’s historical division interviewed local citizens about the site’s history as a burial ground. George W. Pople, a local historian who was 80 at the time, explained that the town of Flushing suffered a cholera epidemic circa 1840, and a smallpox epidemic in 1844. Afraid that the bodies of the victims would contaminate church burial grounds, the town purchased this land from the Bowne family to create a separate public burial ground for this express purpose. In 1854, medical scientist John Snow discovered a link between cholera and contaminated water, and in the following decades improved hygiene helped to ward off such diseases. As the incidence of such epidemics diminished, the burial ground fell out of use for a time.
The burial ground entered a new chapter in the later decades of the 1800s, when it was set aside for use by the African American community. During this time the site appears to have been used more intensively than at any other. As it happened, in the 1850s the Flushing Journal published editorials saying that the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church had run out of burial space, and urged the town of Flushing to reserve a public burial ground for their use. From the 1880’s (and possibly earlier), until the cemetery was closed in 1898, the site was used for the burial of African Americans and Native Americans. The Bunn family—whose names appear on the only marked gravestones we know of from this site—were parishioners of the AME Church.
The ‘re-discovery’ of burial grounds within our municipality is an experience shared by many cities world-wide. The City of New York has buildings and parks that stand on former burial grounds. In the 1990’s, when Parks began a renovation of the site, local activist Mandingo Tshaka drew attention to its previous history. In response, Parks commissioned a $50,000 archaeological study in 1996. Archeologist Linda Stone concluded that the site served as the final resting-place for between 500 to 1,000 individuals. Death records for the town of Flushing exist for the period 1881 until 1898, and show that during this period, 62 percent of the buried were African American or Native American, 34 percent were unidentified, and more than half were children under the age of five.
In 2004, Borough President Helen Marshall and Council Member John Liu allocated a combined $2.667 million in funding making this the largest improvement here since 1938. A paved area bears a central stone inscribed with the site’s history, and an historic wall was recreated and engraved with the names from the only four headstones remaining here in 1919. Mature oaks, as well as new trees and shrubs, serve as the natural link between past and present, providing shade for the burial ground as well as the newly installed toddler’s playground.
- The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground
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