Honoring a Hidden Slave Burial Ground

Honoring a Hidden Slave Burial Ground

Mr. Panaritis, who ran a D.O.E. project called Teaching American History, brought the burial ground to light after discovering a black-and-white photograph from 1910, showing gravestones amid a tangle of weeds, with the words “Slave burying ground, Hunts Point Road” written on the back. After further research, he discovered that as many as 44 slaves had lived in the area, according to 1800 census figures, with the last burial in the 1840s. In the early 20th century, because of road construction, the burial ground was graded, probably unearthing and destroying some of the remains. He believes up to 11 slaves may still be buried at the site.

In March, an archaeological study confirmed much of Mr. Panaritis’s research. Dr. Jessica Striebel MacLean, an archaeologist who conducted the study using two rounds of ground-penetrating radar, found what appears to be burial shafts and the profiles of four collapsed coffins just beyond the white cemetery, near what would have been Hunts Point Road — now simply a path. The white landowner graves are situated east-west, in keeping with Christian burial practices. The slaves would have been buried away from the masters in unconsecrated ground. Their grave orientation — north-south — suggests lower socioeconomic status.

This summer parks officials met with the community and discussed possibilities for identifying the site: a digital kiosk, new seating and signs, an engraved stone marker or a plaque. Some have suggested building a visitors’ center at the site, but officials are wary of disturbing the remains with construction. The department is now working on renderings and estimated costs for various scenarios.

The archaeological study was financed with $15,000 set aside by State Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, with an additional $35,000 to support P.S. 48’s programs related to the project. Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. has also budgeted $100,000 for improvements at the site.


A gated cemetery of slave owners is near the virtually unmarked slave burial ground in Joseph Rodman Drake Park.

Dr. MacLean suggests that further surveys be conducted, as well as research into who might be buried there, using documents and wills, which include the transfer of ownership of the slaves from one generation to the next.

In the spring of 2016, Justin Czarka, a teacher, and his students helped Dr. MacLean with her survey. They measured the standing gravestones of the Hunt, Willett and Leggett families who settled here in the 17th century, identified the types of stones used — marble, sandstone and granite — made drawings and wrote up their own reports.

“What was great about Jessica was that she was able to bring the kids into the process and work with them,” said Mr. Czarka, who teaches English as a second language at the school.

“The children were so actively engaged,” Dr. MacLean said. “And Justin used what we found as a jumping-off point for these kids to have them discuss the burial and memory traditions in their own families.” Children at the school come from a number of backgrounds and speak English, French, Chinese, Arabic and Spanish.

Mr. Czarka, who helped Mr. Panaritis found the Hunts Point Slave Burial Ground project and website, said some children suggested building an amphitheater or a stage at the site so that programs can be carried out in the park. His students have been creating a “needs assessment,” suggesting benches, trash cans, water fountains and new plantings — basics at most city parks that are lacking at Drake.

Because the park has so few visitors, those basics have been ignored for years. Benches, some argue, will only attract a bad element. Mr. Czarka disagrees. “It reinforces this vicious cycle,” he said. “If you don’t have those things, people won’t come to the park. But if they’re put in place, people will use it — for good,” he said, glancing over at Mr. Butler, still playing his trombone.

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