NEW YORK DAILY NEWS THURSDAY, MAY 23, 2013, 8:59 PM
The city demolished the cemetery nearly 100 years ago to make way for a park. ‘This is about people who contributed to this city and whose lives were obliterated from history,’ said teacher Justin Czarka.
For the past 100 years, South Bronx residents have unknowingly held picnics and cavorted over the bones of buried slaves.
That’s the startling discovery teachers and students at a Hunts Point public school have made: They located a burial ground for Indian and African slaves that city officials demolished more than 100 years ago to make way for a nearby park.
Everyone at Public School 48 has taken up the cause of proper recognition for those forgotten slaves buried in Joseph Rodman Drake Park, a few blocks away from their school.
RICHARD HARBUS FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS——-Although the cemetery for African and Indian slaves was demolished, a whites-only cemetery was preserved.
“This is about people who contributed to this city and whose lives were obliterated from history,” said teacher Justin Czarka.
He and Phil Panaritis, a city Education Department official who heads up the Bronx’s federally funded Teaching American History project, have spearheaded more than a year of research by the school’s pupils to document the site’s location. Like the African Burial Ground that was discovered in lower Manhattan two decades ago, the Hunts Point site is a troubling reminder that the legacy of slavery in this town reaches into the most unexpected places.
It took an emotionally charged campaign by the city’s black leaders to turn the lower Manhattan site into a national monument.
RICHARD HARBUS FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS——A Parks Department spokesperson said the next step would be funding for an official investigation by an archeologist to confirm and detail the school’s findings.
But the racial inequity symbolized by the Bronx site is maybe even greater than what happened in Manhattan.
That’s because a small whites-only cemetery was preserved inside the three-acre Drake Park when it was built in 1909. That cemetery, dating to before the Revolutionary War, was deliberately kept by the city while the cemetery for slaves was turned into parkland.
RICHARD HARBUS FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS—-In 1790, 136 slaves lived in Hunts Point, according to the census.
Those interred in the whites-only cemetery were mostly from the slave-owning families that controlled much of Hunts Point during the 18th and 19th centuries. They include the Hunts — who gave Hunts Points its name — and the Leggetts and the Tiffanys, who still have Bronx streets named after them.
Slaves who died in Hunts Point were laid to rest in the segregated slave plot across the road from the white cemetery.
And there weren’t just a tiny number of them.
RICHARD HARBUS FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS——A photo from 1905 shows grave markings.
The first U.S. census in 1790 reported the Thomas Hunt family as having two white males and five white females and owning 10 slaves. It listed the Abraham Leggett family as composed of five white males and five white females and possessing 10 slaves.
That year alone, the census tallied 136 slaves living in Hunts Point.
RICHARD HARBUS FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS—–Students hold a photo from 1905 showing grave markings.
An old 1905 city photo Panaritis found shows the poorly maintained “Slave Burying Ground” on Hunts Point Road, with only a few surviving tombstones.
When the city began building Drake Park four years later, it preserved the white cemetery but turned the slave cemetery into a sloping, grassy area of the park.
In recent years, the Parks Department has neglected the entire park. This week, a visitor noted that weeds had grown so high in the white cemetery they almost obscured the tombstones.
RICHARD HARBUS FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS——-A slave burial ground was also dicovered in lower Manhattan two decades ago. The African Burial Ground is now a national monument thanks to an emotional appeal by the city’s black leaders.
“The injustice with the slave burial ground needs to be corrected,” Czarka said. “They deserve at least a commemorative plaque.”
“We have heard of the school’s interest in this possible burial site,” Parks Department spokeswoman Vickie Karp said.
“Funding for an official investigation conducted by an archeologist to confirm and further detail the school’s findings would be the next step,” she added.
As for the terrible state of the entire park, Karp conceded: “The site needs cutting and trimming, and we plan to do this work by the end of next week.”