The African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan grew from a curiosity to become a national monument. But will a sister colonial-era graveyard in Harlem gain similar protection?
In 1991, construction workers building a government skyscraper in lower Manhattan inadvertently dug up history. The unearthing of skeletal remains revealed a 17th- and 18th-century burial ground for New York City’s free and enslaved black residents. The major archeological find altered the course of the surrounding development and continues to shed light on the city’s complex social history.
Almost two decades later, the prospect of construction around an uptown bus depot at 126th Street by the Harlem River is alarming several community residents. The Elmendorf Reformed Church—Harlem’s oldest local congregation, established as the Reformed Low Dutch Church nearly 350 years old, in 1660—once owned the “Negro Burial Ground” at the bus depot site. The imminent danger of losing this valuable piece of history prompted the formation of a task force.
Forming the Harlem Burial Ground Task Force
The mission to commemorate this ancient African-American graveyard induced a diverse group of local clergy, historians, urban planners and activists to form the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force last year. And to do some digging of its own.
“We know a lot more now,” says Jeannie Terepka, an archivist on the task force. “We’ve progressed a lot further.” Months earlier Terepka had put out feelers via email seeking research leads on the burial ground in Harlem. The effort paid off.
“There’s this convergence of interest in the burial ground,” Terepka says. She cites a common “Concern about sensibilities of the community in terms of recognizing the past, and a desire to have everyone understand more about what the culture of Nieuw Haarlem was.”
A town hall meeting
The Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force will hold a Town Hall Meeting to offer a PowerPoint presentation and other information about the site on:
• Date: Tuesday, January 26th
• Time: 6:30 p.m.
• Place: Elmendorf Reformed Church
• Location: 171 East 121st Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues.
Although the Dutch church owned the burial ground, the common denominator of those interred there was race. Deceased men, women and children of African descent came from various churches.
For her own part, Terepka has plumbed parish records from four uptown 19th-century Episcopal churches—St. Michael’s (Bloomingdale), where she is the church archivist, St. Mary’s (Manhattanville), St. James (Yorkville) and the Church of the Redeemer (Yorkville). All of these occasionally buried their black congregants in the Harlem graveyard between 1810 and 1850.
“Every new bit of work that I do answers one or two questions, and raises three or four more,” Terepka says about the documentation she has prepared for the town hall presentation. But she feels more questions are good.
“We want people to leave with an understanding that there was an African burial ground there,” Terepka says. “And we want to elicit everybody’s ideas so they’ll leave with a sense of one, or two, or three concrete things they can do.”