Adams endorses alternate proposals for Flatbush African burial ground

Banners on the former site of PS 90, thought to be an African burial ground, now slated for the development of affordable housing.
Photo by Ben Verde

Borough President Eric Adams on Tuesday declared his opposition to a planned affordable housing development in Flatbush said to sit atop a centuries-old African burial ground.

The development, at the former site of PS 90 on the corner of Bedford and Church avenues, was announced by City Hall and area Councilmember Mathieu Eugene during the summer of 2020, and has stirred controversy in the neighborhood ever since. 

As we continue the fight to preserve our history and recognize the significant role enslaved Africans played in shaping it, I cannot support developing this sacred site in Flatbush, an area with a rich history stretching back centuries,” Adams said in a statement released Oct. 12.

In a letter sent Oct. 12 to Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Democratic mayoral nominee, who served as co-chair of a task force set up to solicit public input on the proposed project, expressed support for preserving the vacant lot as a public space and memorial to those interred there.

“I stand in solidarity with the vision for a memorial and open space,” he said in the letter. “Our borough absolutely needs to build more affordable housing, especially in Flatbush, but I cannot support building it on an area shown to have human remains of enslaved people below.” 

The lot on Bedford and Church Avenues.Photo by Ben Verde

The corner lot behind Erasmus Hall High School has sat vacant since PS 90 was demolished in 2016. Maps of the town of Flatbush in the 19th century designated that general area as the “Negro Burial Ground” — a cemetery segregated from the churchyard behind the nearby Flatbush Reformed Church, which remains well maintained with rows of gravestones to this day. 

At least two people are confirmed to have been buried at the site. Phyllis Jacobs, whose burial in the Flatbush “Burial Ground for ‘Colored People'” is mentioned in the book “A Historical Sketch of the Zabriskie Homestead in Flatbush, LI,” published in 1881, and Eve, a 110-year-old woman who was said to be enslaved by the Vorhees and Ditmas families. 

Following the demolition of the school building, the lot was turned over to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, who announced their plans to seek out a team to develop the lot into affordable housing with an accompanying vocational training center in 2020.

Eugene, who has represented the area in the Council for over 14 years, formed a task force soon after to gather public input on the site and the proposed project, which he co-chaired along with Adams. Eugene, who expressed support for the affordable housing project at the time of its announcement, told Brooklyn Paper he was open to whatever the task force eventually recommended, and wanted the lot to serve the community in the best way possible. 

“My hope is to see us come together to see what is the best thing we can do for the community,” Eugene said following Adams’ announcement. “If the community decides that we should create something that will remind us of the struggle our ancestors went through, I don’t have any problem with that.”

Adams, who is heavily favored to win November’s general election, recommended that management of the lot be transferred from HPD to either the Parks Department or the Economic Development Corporation and that other sites in the area should be considered for affordable housing. 

“I recognize and am sympathetic to the pressing need for affordable housing in the area,” he said, “but I believe we can identify other sites in the area that can help us meet the need, while meeting an equally vital need for open space in a community that has long lacked access to such spaces.”

The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.