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Staten Island assesses future of paved-over cemetery holding formerly enslaved people

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

New York outlawed slavery in 1827, several decades before Congress abolished it federally. But across the state, there are burial sites containing the remains of enslaved people. Many of the gravesites are now in severe disrepair. WNYC reporter Arun Venugopal has the story of one such site on Staten Island.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: Ruth Ann Hills is African American and resides on Staten Island. She took pride in thinking that for centuries her family had lived in the area freely.

RUTH ANN HILLS: My family's been on Staten Island since, like, the late 1700s, early 1800s - my grandfather, my great-great-grandfather, you know?

VENUGOPAL: Then a filmmaker who'd been conducting genealogical research for a documentary told Hills and her brother David about Benjamin Prine. Prine died in 1900 at the age of 106. He built fortifications during the War of 1812. He was the last person known to have been born into slavery on Staten Island. Hills and her brother had never heard of him, but it turns out he was their great-great-great-grandfather.

HILLS: You know, I'm in my 70s, and I thought I was, you know, like - you knew about slavery, but slavery happened down South.

VENUGOPAL: Prine was owned by a highly influential New Yorker, a minister by the name of Peter Van Pelt. Hills and her brother now share a house built by their grandfather on Van Pelt Avenue. The street is named for the white family that enslaved their ancestor. Prine's body was buried just a mile away, but the filmmaker told them that the burial ground had long ago been sold. Today, it's a strip mall.

DAVID THOMAS: Every day for years and years and years and years, they were just walked over and desecrated.

VENUGOPAL: Hill's brother, David Thomas, who's 65.

THOMAS: That's just - that's a sin to me. That's shameful.

VENUGOPAL: The city council is now set to co-name the street that runs along the burial ground Benjamin Prine Way, and one of the commercial tenants at the site, Santander Bank, wants to mount a plaque about its history. But Hills and her brother want more. They say the remains of everyone buried here must be reburied in a proper cemetery, and they want reparations.

HILLS: I'm not talking about millions of dollars, but something for my family. That's it.

VENUGOPAL: Heather Quinlan is the filmmaker. The documentary she's producing is called "Staten Island Graveyard." We met in the strip mall's parking lot.

HEATHER QUINLAN: Yeah. This is the notorious dumpster where - I believe there are remains under here.

VENUGOPAL: Anywhere from 90 to 1,000 bodies, she said.

QUINLAN: Usually there's people either dumpster diving or urinating or treating it as their own personal trash bin.

VENUGOPAL: Watch where you step.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

QUINLAN: Oh, yeah.

VENUGOPAL: For real.

It was clear that people had defecated here, too. It's filthy. Quinlan says the deterioration of the cemetery began in the 1800s. Headstones disappeared. The adjoining church, the Second Asbury AME, was torn down. In the mid-1900s, the city ultimately seized the site and auctioned it off. The new owner built a Shell gas station.

DEBBIE-ANN PAIGE: The history of African Americans have been erased here on Staten Island.

VENUGOPAL: That's Debbie-Ann Paige, a Black historian on Staten Island. She says the city knowingly approved commercial development atop a burial ground filled with Black New Yorkers. She compared the erasure of burial sites to the erasure of history in American textbooks.

PAIGE: The history is the glue that keeps the community together.

VENUGOPAL: The most prominent site holding the remains of formerly enslaved Americans is the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan. Peggy King Jorde oversaw the reclamation of that site in the 1990s. She's now helping envision a memorial on Staten Island.

PEGGY KING JORDE: Anthropologists or archaeologists say that what, in part, defines us as human is how we bury our dead.

VENUGOPAL: For enslaved people, the act of burial serves an additional purpose.

KING JORDE: The community in that fact is reclaiming the humanity of that individual, of that brother, that sister, that mother, that father. And in that moment, if you can imagine doing that, what you are engaging in is a revolutionary act.

VENUGOPAL: And in this process, she says, the ground becomes sacred, which is why it's critical to preserve the story and the sanctity of these sites. For NPR News, I'm Arun Venugopal in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Arun Venugopal