Above: Ye Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground
When I moved to Flushing in 1993 and started bicycling around the neighborhood, I found 46th Avenue along Flushing Cemetery an ideal route — there were relatively few stoplights and intersections, and it was a convenient way to reach Glen Oaks, Hollis Hills, Bellerose and into Nassau. I used to pass a spacious, but nondescript, playground called Martin’s Field between 164th and 165th Streets. There were swings in the front, a sprinkler fountain, and the standard issue benches and lawns you find in a thousand other playgrounds around town.
However, Bayside historian and civil-rights activist Mandingo Tshaka had already been poring over real estate records and maps and had discovered that Martin’s Field lay directly on top of an old cemetery founded in the early 19th century and that over one thousand people, mainly African-Americans, Native Americans and also some whites found their final repose here, partially due to a cholera and smallpox epidemic that raged through Flushing beginning in the 1840s.
Ground in eastern Flushing was purchased from the Bowne family to inter the victims of these diseases, as contamination was feared if they were buried in Flushing’s already established cemeteries such as the St. George churchyard on Main Street. After the cholera epidemic had eased due to improved hygienic practices, the African Methodist Church of Flushing, which still exists today on Union Street, extensively used this ground for burials between about 1880 and 1898, when the last interment took place.
After that, however, the burial ground was completely forgotten as Flushing became more urbanized and streets and houses were built. The cemetery was acquired by the Parks Department in 1914 and in 1936 Parks Department chief Robert Moses developed it as a traditional playground, despite the fact that bones of the interred, along with the pennies placed on the eyes of the dead, were found during excavations. As a rule, Moses had no use for historic impediments to his projects, and not a lot of resistance arose against the playground project at the time.
And so Martin’s Field, named for conservationist Everett P. Martin, remained for the next sixty years. Hearing of Parks’ plan to renovate the playground in the 1990s, Tshaka embarked on a petitioning program, imploring local politicians and activists to reclaim the cemetery. These efforts finally met with success in 2004, as Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and then-City Councilman John Liu secured $2,667,000 to relocate the playground and add memorials that identified the cemetery, and re-landscape the hallowed ground.
By the time Moses began turning the burial ground into a playground, only four headstones remained, three of them belonging to the Bunn family. A new memorial wall was inscribed with the names. A marble slab providing a brief history of the cemetery along with some of the names of those who are buried was placed in the ground, and circular walks and benches replaced the playground, which was moved to the rear of the former park space.
An interesting touch is the pavement inscriptions of four Native American words, Wompanand, Wunnanameant, Sowwanad, and Chekusawand. These are four of the 17 names of Algonquian gods transcribed by Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, into his 1643 book A Key Into the Language of the Americas.
The renamed Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground was rededicated on May 23, 2010, in a ceremony attended by Mandingo Tshaka and many local representatives.
Kevin Walsh blogs at Forgotten New York