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City plans new memorials for Flushing burial ground

The city is reworking plans for new memorials to 19th-century blacks and American Indian cholera and small pox victims who were buried in the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground, known as Martins Field until its renaming in December 2009.

The city Parks Department unveiled plans to install four small headstones and an obelisk in the 3-1/2-acre park to commemorate those fallen men and women, but the scope of the plans did not please many community residents, including Mandingo Tshaka, a Bayside community leader who has led the charge to bring honor to those buried there.

“The Parks Department wants to put in 3-foot headstones. They still have this idea that it should be a park. But when you ride by in a car or a bus, you have to be able to tell that, no, this is a cemetery,” he said.

Borough President Helen Marshall secured $100,000 in funding for the project in 2008 and the Parks Department drew up the original plans, which Tshaka and others requested changes to. Now the department is back at the drawing board, determining how to create a plan the community will embrace.

“Apparently the community wanted something different and that’s why it’s back at the Parks Department, and the drawings are being done to deal with the feelings of the community and to get something basically that everyone can agree on that is adequate, appropriate and to the liking of all concerned parties,” said Dan Andrews, a spokesman for Marshall.

The site, between 164th and 165th streets along 46th Avenue in Flushing, has had its share of controversy over the years since it began as a paupers’ graveyard of sorts, where Tshaka said blacks and American Indians killed by disease were dumped in pits in the 1830s and 1840s.

“There are three groups of people buried there, the majority are children,” Tshaka said. “The order of burial when you go by the cemetery was not in rows, but anywhere you could put a pick and a shovel in the ground, three or four on top of each other, 6 to 12 inches below ground.”

But Tshaka said the obelisk and headstones will rightfully return at least a bit of the historical nature of the space, helping to educate today’s Flushing residents about the city’s checkered racial history.

The Olde Town of Flushing Conservancy, a group which works on issues related to the site, is also seeking federal and state protections for it.

Andrews said he did not have a time frame or specific details about the memorial plans and referred questions to the Parks Department, which did not respond to a request for comment.

“The Queens Parks Department has told us that their capital design department is in the process of preparing preliminary drawings to show the community and the borough president,” he said. “They’re some kind of markers and they’re in the process, but they’re not done yet, so I can’t answer that.”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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