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Black lives matter — even when they’re long-dead and buried.
Such is the case in Brooklyn, where a proposal for a much-needed affordable housing complex is butting heads with community efforts to preserve an historic African burial ground.
There should be no debate. The city must protect this important piece of history and honor those who paved the way for all of its citizens — Black and white.
“This is crucial not only to respect the dead but to respect our history,” says Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “It’s desecration and it has to be stopped.”
Adams, the city’s likely next mayor, shared with me a letter he wrote urging Mayor de Blasio to scrap his support for a controversial plan to build an affordable housing project in Flatbush at the corner of Church and Bedford Aves.
In the letter, Adams, who co-chairs a task force on the issue, says the city-owned site of the demolished PS 90, which is currently vacant, should be a culturally appropriate memorial, accompanied by open space.
“Our borough absolutely needs to build more affordable housing, especially in Flatbush,” Adams says in the letter. “But I cannot support building it on an area shown to have human remains of enslaved peoples below. This is an opportunity to truly reflect on the painful past of our city’s founding and recognize the role that our overlooked ancestors have played in its growth and, more importantly, to properly memorialize their lives.”
The optics obviously are not good. On one hand is a white mayor, de Blasio, pushing for bulldozers to clear the land that holds the bodies and remains of slaves to make way for a development that weakly promises to ease the borough’s affordable housing crunch.
On the other hand is his likely Black successor, Adams, going up against City Hall to preserve a vital piece of African-American history.
It doesn’t look good.
But in reality, this isn’t an issue of Black against white. The issue is right against wrong.
Despite unsightly weeds and rusted gates, there is more than enough evidence that the fenced-in lot in the shadow of Erasmus High School is sacred ground.
Local activists call it “Eve’s Garden” in honor of an enslaved woman named Eve, who was buried on the site, according to an 1810 obituary.
In a book published in 1881, Sara Hicks, a formerly enslaved woman who lived about a block west of the site, was quoted as saying her twin sister Phyllis Jacobs was buried at the African Burial Ground.
Meanwhile, an 1855 map of Flatbush depicts the “Negro Burying Ground” at what is now the junction of Bedford and Church Aves. Bones have also been found on the site.
Despite this, de Blasio, along with City Councilman Mathieu Eugene, who is Hatian-American, announced plans last year to redevelop the site into a complex that would house 130 affordable apartments with space for an educational or vocational facility on the ground floor.
But the community doesn’t want it.
Not in my backyard, they’re saying. Not when the backyard is an African burial ground.
“This is not just nimbyism coming from the Black community,” Adams says. “You just don’t build on top of gravesites. As people are awakening to this concept of Black lives matter, they don’t only matter when they are alive. They matter when they are laying in their graves.”