Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground
Students in a Queens College Public History class worked with the Burial Ground Conservancy to document the history of the site.
In Spring 2016 and Fall 2020, Queens Memory collaborated with Dr. Johnathan Thayer’s graduate Public History classes at Queens College on their work to document and preserve the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground, a local history site that has been the focus of a great deal of community activism. The Burial Ground was originally used for African-American, Native American and “pauper” burials, but in the 1930s was paved over and turned into a NYC park called Martin’s Field, featuring a children’s playground. A group of local residents (the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy), including some descendants of those buried at the site, have fought a long battle with the city to get the land recognized as a cemetery, and have finally won some progress in recent years. Students researched the site’s history, created multimedia public history projects and conducted interviews with Conservancy members as well as others connected with the site.
Students in the Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies conducted research and interviews, connecting with members of the Burial Ground’s Conservancy and other community members interested in the site.
Members of the Conservancy worked with students and faculty directly and also suggested other participants. Students also discovered other research topics and interview subjects on their own.
The project has been very successful by all accounts. The students undertook a variety of individual research efforts that culminated in presentations attended by many community members. The information they uncovered about the history of the site — particularly a list of burials and biographical information about individuals interred there — aided the Conservancy in its successful effort to have the cemetery recognized as a state and federal Historic Site. In 2018, the City allocated $1.6 million for the construction of a memorial plaza at the site that will make use of student research. The students also contributed oral history interviews, documentary video, photographs, genealogical data, and other multimedia products related to the Burial Ground to the Queens Memory collection.
Students and faculty have continued to work with the Conservancy to discuss the work at public programs and academic conferences. In addition, an exhibit at the Queens Museum, Monuments to an Effigy, was inspired by the history of and work done at the site.
On Saturday, October 28, 2023, the Conservancy celebrated another milestone – the co-naming of 46th Avenue alongside the Burial Ground as “Old Towne Burial Ground Lane.” At the unveiling ceremony, elected officials including Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, sponsoring District 20 Council Member Sandra Ung and New York State Senator John Liu spoke of the importance of preserving and educating the public about the site’s history. Conservancy Co-Chair Robbie Garrison gave a brief overview of the reclamation process that began with Mandingo Tshaka and thanked the many people who have contributed to the success of the effort, including Prof. Thayer and his Public History students. The event concluded with a traditional Native American blessing to the four winds by Chief Little Fox of the Matinecock Tribe.
On November 9, 2021, the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground hosted a public unveiling of the memorial featuring etchings of the four marble headstones once marking the graves at the cemetery. The names of 399 of the interred – most of which were discovered by student researchers in the two Public History classes – are engraved on the face of the memorial. Space has been left for the addition of more names, should they be found.
The ceremony was conducted by the New York City Parks Department and featured speakers including Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, Queens District Attorney (and former Borough President) Melinda Katz, and Congresswoman Grace Meng.
Student Projects Resulting From Public History Classes
- 1880 Federal Census—Flushing (ED 266)
- Black and Native American Surnames, Flushing, Queens, Based on 1880 Federal Census
- Black Family Units, Flushing, Queens, Based on 1880 Federal Census
- Flushing Black, Native American, and Mixed-Race Population Demographic Analysis, 1880 Federal Census, Enumeration District 266
- Native American Family Units, Flushing, Queens, Based on 1880 Federal Census
- Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Records Compared With 1880 Federal Census
Oral history interviews with individuals involved in preserving the Burial Ground:
- Chief Little Fox (Samuel Steven Boyd Jr.) by Jeffrey Delgado and Cristina Fontánez Rodríguez
- Mandingo Osceola Tshaka and Robbie Garrison by Christy Orquera
- Maureen Regan by Melissa Lino, Gabriella Lacza and Kevin O’Leary
- Sally Mehreteab by Melissa Lino, Gabriella Lacza and Kevin O’Leary
- Robbie Garrison, parts one and two, by Melissa Lino, Gabriella Lacza and Kevin O’Leary
- Nancy Tognan by Melissa Lino, Gabriella Lacza and Kevin O’Leary
Genealogical profiles of individuals interred at the Burial Ground:
- Caroline Townsend: Case Study by Carlos Rodriguez
- Charles Hicks: Case Study by Sarah Healy
- Hester Johnson (c. 1800-1895) and the Colored Settlement of Killjordan Creek: Case Study by Riah L. Kinsey
- Otto Schneider and the Sands Family: Case Study by Amy Mackin
- Samuel Francis (1800) – 1882): Case Study by Mitsuko Brooks
Interactive Map of Historic Burial Grounds of Queens Public Parks by Aimee Lusty
Queens Memory plans to continue collaborating with the Burial Ground Conservancy, Dr. Johnathan Thayer, and the Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies. For future work, we will consult with Conservancy members early on about their next goals for the site, and will work closely with students to help shape their individual projects. It can be challenging to balance students’ learning goals and the choices of tools they employ in their individual projects with the needs of long-term stakeholders and their capabilities for maintenance. Some questions we will address in future semesters before students begin their work are: “Is there an existing project we can meaningfully advance?” and “What ongoing maintenance will this project require, and is there a commitment from a long-term stakeholder to provide it?”
The Public History classes were taught by Dr. Johnathan Thayer of Queens College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Studies. Lori Wallach, Queens Memory’s Outreach Coordinator at the college, helped train students to do interviews and prepare materials for submission to the archive. Conservancy officers and board members including Mandingo Osceola Tshaka, Robbie Garrison, Sally Mehreteab and Maureen Regan represented the Burial Ground, and Chief Little Fox (Samuel Steven Boyd Jr.) of the Matinecock Nation provided important information on the Native American history of the site.
Video from the Afterlives conference, co-hosted by the CUNY Public History Collective and the CUNY Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, October 28, 2016. The session was moderated by Dr. Johnathan Thayer; panelists were Robbie Garrison of the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy; Queens College Public History students Regina Carra, Jeffrey Delgado, Cristina Fontánez Rodríguez and Rudy Hartmann; and Queens Memory Outreach Coordinator Lori Wallach
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