After Charlottesville, pols say dig deeper into Gowanus’ possible slave graveyard

August 18, 2017 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
On Thursday, Sen. Jesse Hamilton and other elected officials called for an independent archaeological and architectural investigation at an empty lot in Gowanus that may be a slave burial ground. A pre-K school is planned for the site, but lawmakers are asking that its groundbreaking be delayed until proper research can be conducted. Photo courtesy of Sen. Hamilton’s office
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Sen. Jesse Hamilton, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and other elected officials gathered on Thursday to call for an independent archaeological and architectural investigation at an empty lot in Gowanus that may be a former slave burial ground.

Hamilton and Adams were joined by preservationists and community advocates in front of the vacant property at Ninth Street and Third Avenue to ask the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to conduct more research to determine if the land holds the remains of 19th-century African slaves.

Given the recent violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, officials say there has never been a more fitting time to confront America’s controversial past.

“In the wake of the national outcry over Confederate monuments, our city must come to grips with its own slave-owning history,” Hamilton told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Historian Eric Foner writes that at one point in Brooklyn history, slaves represented one-third of the population.

“Charlottesville only underscores our obligation to uncover New York’s history. In Charlottesville, we have white supremacists and neo-Nazis seeking to preserve Confederate monuments, many built as a signal reaffirming oppression and denial of rights to African Americans. We must reject that message and condemn the hatefulness and violence we saw these white supremacists exhibit.”

Hamilton and his colleagues have reason to believe that slaves were buried at the site based on Gowanus landowner Adriance Van Brunt’s diary entries from 1828 to 1830.

The Van Brunt diary can be viewed by appointment only at New York Public Library’s temperature-controlled Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts.

“Our nation’s history is intricately linked with the abhorrent practice of slavery,” Adams told the Eagle. “At a time when the country is so bitterly divided on the appropriate approach to righting this historical wrong, it is imperative that New York stands for preserving history and protecting truth.”

Adams added, “The only way that we can grow and move forward in unity as One Brooklyn is if we confront the painful truths of the past. An independent archaeological and architectural investigation will ensure that the voices of those who may have lived in bondage on that site will not remain silent forever.”

A pre-K school is planned for the site, which connects to Eighth Street, but officials are asking that its groundbreaking be delayed until proper research can be conducted.

The environmental, planning and engineering firm AKRF, INC. recently completed a dig at the site, but nothing of historical significance was found.

Officials assert, however, that the holes, which went three to six feet underground, were not deep enough.

“Here in New York, we must recognize our city was the financial capital for slavery in America,” Hamilton told the Eagle. “We might not fly Confederate flags, but the skyscrapers in New York were based on a financial system that profited from enslaving African Americans.

“Wall Street once held slave auctions. We can no longer whitewash our own history. As we fight to take down the symbols of slavery, we have to be honest about our own connection. We must redouble our efforts to uncover the history of those who were enslaved who helped build our city.”

More than Meets The Eye

Even before the recent revelations about the potentially buried slaves, Hamilton and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon introduced legislation in 2015 to preserve and recognize the Gowanus lot for a different reason.

Several preservationists and historians believe that 256 members of the Maryland 400 were buried there. The Maryland 400 was a group of courageous soldiers who continually charged at a superior British side during the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Brooklyn on Aug. 27, 1776.

Above the American Legion Post 1636, which sits adjacent to the lot, is a New York State Historical sign from 1947 that reads, “Maryland Heroes, Here lie buried 256 Maryland Soldiers who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn, Aug. 27, 1776.”

The Battle of Brooklyn, also known as the Battle of Long Island, was one of the largest battles of the Revolution, involving 64,000 men, reports The Baltimore Sun.

Joseph Alexiou, a Brooklyn journalist, historian and author of “Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal,” articulated a lesser-known fact about the importance of Gowanus during the Revolutionary War. 

“When the British chased the Americans down to the Gowanus Creek… the British stopped,” Alexiou said in a Ted Talk. “This barrier of the Gowanus allowed the Americans to have a day-and-a-half to organize a daring, dead-in-the-night escape across the East River and allowed the American army to reconstitute so that they could fight another day.

“What if there was no Gowanus creek?” Alexiou continued. “No boggy barrier blocking the British? Is it so presumptuous to suggest that if there was no Gowanus Creek we might have been divided and conquered? Is it so ridiculous to suggest without the Gowanus Creek, there would be no America?”


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