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State Tells City to Dig Deeper to Unearth Possible Slave Remains in Gowanus

By Caroline Spivack | August 18, 2017 11:45am | Updated on August 21, 2017 5:31am
 On Thursday, officials called on the state to prompt a thorough investigation at the 9th Street lot for the remains of slaves and Revolutionary War soldiers.
On Thursday, officials called on the state to prompt a thorough investigation at the 9th Street lot for the remains of slaves and Revolutionary War soldiers.
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DNAinfo/Caroline Spivack

GOWANUS — The state recommended Thursday that the city dig deeper into the soil of a proposed Gowanus pre-kindergarten site that may hold the remains of slaves and Revolutionary War soldiers.

On Thursday, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation sent the city's School Construction Authority a letter revealing it had discovered traces of a 19th century cistern and well during a recent survey. It now recommends the agency excavate further at the Ninth Street lot, a Department of Education official said Friday. 

It is now up to the city to decide if it will follow the the state's recommendation.

"We cannot desecrate this burial ground," state Sen. Jesse Hamilton said at a Thursday press conference held on the matter before the public learned of the state's new stance. "I know we need to build a school to alleviate overcrowding, but we can’t build a school on a foundation of ignorance."

Historians have long suspected that the patch of land between Third and Fourth avenues next to the American Legion hall is the burial ground of the legendary Maryland 400 — most of whom died on Aug. 27, 1776, fending off British troops to bide Gen. George Washington and his troops time to retreat to Manhattan.

But the rediscovery of the diary of a 19th century farmer who lived on the land corroborated another historical account of slaves buried there, reigniting calls for a deeper dig.

A partial excavation was conducted at the behest of the state earlier this summer and did not uncover human remains. But after officials requested and received more data, the state now says there is sufficient evidence to warrant more digging.

Possible Gowanus Slave Burial GroundA memorial that pays homage to the area's history stands above the barren Ninth Street lot that could be a burial site for slaves and Maryland 400 soldiers. (DNAinfo/Caroline Spivack)

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon and even actor Partick Stewart, who lives nearby, are among those advocating to unearth the site's history. But some officials are skeptical that they can get an accurate portrait of that history from the city-hired surveying firm, AKRF Inc., because of its track record. 

The environmental consulting firm helmed a two-year study that sought to determine whether six houses on Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn acted as a stop on the Underground Railroad — a network of secret routes and safe houses used to free escaped slaves. 

The company's 2007 report claimed no persuasive evidence was discovered to support local lore that the houses were a hotbed of abolitionist activity. But local residents slammed the report as trivializing key pieces of data, sued the city and won when it tried to proceed with plans to seize the buildings through eminent domain. 

"I'm extremely skeptical because the people who are doing the investigation disregarded the history they did find at Duffield Street," Shawne' Lee, director of the Friends of 227 Abolitionist Place Museum Heritage Center, told DNAinfo New York Thursday. "I’m not against development, but I am against the dismantling and hiding of the history that makes our state so beautiful."

Additional digging will only delay building a school, and the city-hired firm has incentive to publish findings that support its employer's plans, according to Assemblywoman Simon.

"You’re going to work with your client and your job is to perhaps support their client,” Simon speculated at the Thursday press conference.

Department of Education officials maintained that they will work with the state to ensure necessary excavations are conducted, an agency spokeswoman said. 

"A thorough investigation on the site began in June and is ongoing in accordance with all State standards and protocols," spokeswoman Toya Holness said. "The SCA will continue to engage all appropriate entities and stakeholders throughout this process.”

Slave-burial skeptics have pointed to a lack of documentation, even though the diary of Adriance Van Brunt is the second source suggesting slaves were laid to rest on the land. 

But in Manhattan, it actually only took one document — a 1755 map rediscovered at the New-York Historical Society — to prompt the federal government to explore a Lower Manhattan lot where developers aimed to erect an office building, according to that site's historian.

The location is now the African Burial Ground National Monument.

"It doesn't take very much documentation to verify that there are human remains," Michael Frazier, the historian at the African Burial Ground, told DNAinfo. "And you have to realize that there won't be a lot of documentation, because [slaves] weren't written about heavily unless it was to sell or do inventory." 

A key difference for the Lower Manhattan site compared to the Gowanus lot — as well as graves elsewhere, such as the former bus depot built on an East Harlem burial ground — is that the city has more legal leeway than the federal government when it comes to probing the sites. 

Federally, the government must comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which mandates a rigorous review process, but regulations are slightly more lax on the state level, Frazier explained.

"This is the difference with many of the burial grounds being found now," he said. "It's a completely different process for private land and city-owned land."

Even if the remains of one former slave is unearthed on the lot, that would be a game-changer for the fate of the land, Frazier added.

"You have to understand that this is very personal for many people within the country. Even if one skeletal remain is discovered, they could be memorialized," he said. "One life is just as valuable as the hundreds found at the African Burial Ground."