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Mandingo urges city to preserve burial site

A Bayside community activist is renewing his call for the historic Martin's Field African-American burial ground in Flushing to be honored and maintained by the city as a cemetery and not a park.

Mandingo Tshaka, who led the charge for a memorial to be erected at the site, said the city's handling of the property since the November 2006 memorial dedication has led to abuse and disrespect of the ground.

"They are public servants and this is a government by the people, for the people," Tshaka said. "We expect the respect to be done. When you come up to the site, you should know and respect it for what it is, and right now you can't do that."

Skid marks from bicycles have left scars on a terrace featuring a tablet dedicated to the some 500 to 1,000 people believed to have been buried at the grounds since 1840. Elsewhere on the three-acre burial ground, pictures have showed fences torn down, holes dug by dogs and empty beer bottles littering the landscape.

Tshaka contends that the vandalism and littering that have occurred at the site would not exist if the city Parks Department provided maintenance and enforcement for the property as a cemetery and not a park.

The Parks Department said it administers Martin's Field as both a memorial ground and a community park and has erected signs within the last year to discourage any misuse of the site. The department is scheduled to meet with Tshaka in early June to discuss the matter further.

Tshaka said he would also like to see four headstones that had adorned the site replaced. He said the city removed the headstones several decades ago in violation of the city charter and never replaced them. Tshaka said the memorial that currently exists — a flat pavilion — does not do the hundreds of people buried there justice.

"What they call a memorial is a carpet, a carpet down in the ground and people come in there and they don't know what it is and they're just walking over it," he said. "Flushing Cemetery is right next door. And this is just as hallowed. But when you see Flushing Cemetery, you know exactly what it is, what it represents. At Martin's Field, right now, you don't."

Tshaka said Borough President Helen Marshall and City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) promised to set aside funding to replace the headstones, but have yet to do so.

"Helen told me she's going to put something nice there," he said. "Well, OK, but what's that? What's 'something nice?' "

Neither Marshall nor Liu returned calls for comment.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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