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Flushing burial ground to add wall of names

More than 170 years after the first people were laid to rest there, the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground is in the final stages of receiving the recognition community members believe it deserves.

Representatives from both the city Parks Department and city Public Design Commission, the Queens borough president’s office and the burial ground’s conservancy convened at a closed-door meeting last week at the borough president’s office to discuss a proposed monument and how best to operate the grounds in a way that marks its past.

“They came up with another final decision: a wall with the names of those interred in the site,” Bayside activist Mandingo Tshaka said last week. “I’m happy with their ideas. It was a good meeting.”

“Everyone agrees the cemetery must be protected and recognized as a cemetery,” said Dan Andrews, a spokesman for the borough president. “Now the focus is how to do that.”

Tshaka became involved with the burial ground — located along 46th Avenue between 164th and 165th streets across from the Flushing Cemetery — in the mid-1980s, when it was named Martin Field.

He discovered that the park, which included a playground and recreational equipment, had been used as a public burial ground from 1840 to 1898, when up to 1,000 individuals, the majority of whom were African American or native American, were laid to rest. In 1914, it became the property of the city Parks Department and was renamed Martin’s Field. In subsequent years, a playground and recreational equipment were built on the site.

Tshaka said it is just one of several parks throughout the city, such as Sara Delano Roosevelt and Bryant parks, that obscure the fact that these sites used to be black burial grounds.

He was successful in working with former City Councilman John Liu to relocate the playground to the north end of the site, and in 2006 a reclamation ceremony was held and a plaque was put in place marking the site as a burial ground.

Tshaka said that at that ceremony, Borough President Helen Marshall promised to treat the site as a burial ground and plans had been made to design a monument that would include an obelisk and four headstones found there. Marshall has allocated $100,000 from the capital budget for the project and another $9,000 has come from the Council.

But Tshaka said that in the meantime the grounds are being treated like a park: People bring their dogs inside and the gates are not closed, leaving it vulnerable to vandalism.

Queens Parks Department Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski said she would look for community volunteers to take responsibility for locking the site at night. She said in the coming months her department will work with the borough president’s office to come up with a final design for a monument, which will then be presented to the design commission for approval.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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