In Brooklyn, Black Women Step Up to Remember Their Ancestors

Shantell Jones, 30, took a satin ribbon and wove three neon pink letters into a chain-wire fence in Brooklyn on a recent Saturday afternoon. It’s an empty lot of land, overgrown with grass that stretches behind it. The corner on Bedford and Church Avenues was quiet on this day, and only the occasional car turned into the gas station next door. “EVE” read Jones’ sign. “It’s the name of a woman who was buried here,” she said.


The first-grade teacher co-leads the Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition. Her group was the driving force in a process that convinced the City of New York to abandon its plan for a high-rise on a site where Africans enslaved by Dutch settlers were laid to rest several hundred years ago. The official Flatbush African Burial Ground Remembrance and Redevelopment Task Force found in 2021 that residents of the area preferred a memorial for the history of enslavement to the city’s affordable housing project. 


“It’s my life, it’s my ancestry,” Jones said. “There is a war going on about who gets to tell Black history. I want to be part of it. We should be the ones to tell our own story.”


How to deal with African cemeteries from the 17th to 19th centuries has become a point of contention across New York City. 


“To understand the history and significance of burial grounds, you have to go back to the African Burial Ground, which was found in the 1990s in Lower Manhattan,” said Nan A. Rothschild, a research professor at Barnard College who published a book on the archaeological history of New York last year. A conflict over how to handle the human remains ensued as soon as they were discovered in Manhattan, Rothschild, 82, said. Eventually, concerns over the protection of the burials prevailed, excavations halted and the site was designated a landmark. “It was clearly an example of Black people showing their power.”


In Flatbush, the battle over the future of the burial ground is still ongoing.


“They should leave the site as it is, because it is history,” said Josefa Carty, 76, a retired former criminal court employee who immigrated to Flatbush from the Dominican Republic in 1976. Carty has not been involved in the debate around the cemetery but said she feels a connection to the people buried there. “My family originally came from Africa.”


Ron Schweiger, Brooklyn’s official borough historian, has a different vision for the Flatbush African Burial Ground. “There is a pre-story to this,” he said, explaining that the site used to be part of the Flatbush Reformed Church, still located one block away today. In 1842, a wooden school was built, later replaced by a historic brick building that last served as a Jewish school and was torn down by the city in 2015. “It’s a nice big piece of land. It should be two things: a park and a museum on the history of slavery and of education,” Schweiger, 78, said.


Shanna Sabio, one of Shantell Jones’ co-leaders at the Flatbush African Burial Ground Coalition, is opposed to any construction, especially without proper consultation of residents. “We’re not building on our ancestor’s bones,” the 49-year-old non-profit manager said. “Flatbush was the heart of Brooklyn in the 17th century and Black people built it.” 


The coalition wants Flatbush residents of African descent to sit at the table when decisions on how to memorialize formerly enslaved people like Eve are made. Responsibility for the burial ground now lies with the NYC Parks Department, which has yet to announce its plans. 


“A lot of people don’t realize that slavery happened in New York. But we were a slave society,” Sabio said.

About the author(s)

Ariane Luthi is a Swiss journalist and graduate student at Columbia School of Journalism.