HUNTS POINT, The Bronx (PIX11) — From colonial times to two decades before the Civil War, African American slaves were buried on a plot of land in what was then an island in the middle of a marsh in the Bronx.
Over time, the burial ground, which was marked only with crude tombstones, was forgotten.
Now, however, thanks to historical and archeological research by a few groups of fourth graders, not only has the slave burial ground been rediscovered, the people interred there are being properly memorialized.
On Thursday afternoon, West African drummers accompanied singers and band members from P.S. 48 in a ceremony at Joseph Rodman Drake Park. It was by no means a typical school assembly, and the students were anything but typical.
Ahmed Alnajjar is one of those students.
“In the future, this park is gonna be famous,” the fourth grader told PIX11 News.
He’s among the students in teacher Justin Czarka’s English as a Second Language class.
The two dozen or so schoolchildren searched for and through maps, census data, charts, books and other sources to find the burial ground. The history sleuthing began two years ago, after a curator at the Museum of the City of New York sent Department of Education historian Phil Panaritis a 19th Century photo of a slave burial ground in the Bronx, on Hunts Point Road, a thoroughfare that no longer exists.
Panaritis contacted Czarka, the fourth grade teacher in Hunts Point and a lover of history. Czarka and his students set out on a quest.
Through the documents they found and analyzed, as well as through repeated visits to potential burial ground sites, they concluded that it had to be on raised ground facing an historic cemetery for white colonial settlers and their descendants.
A visit last year by a U.S. Department of Agriculture technician using ground-penetrating radar resulted in the positive identification of what are called anthropogenic features — long decomposed human remains.
It was definitive proof that the place the fourth graders had pinpointed what they were looking for: a knoll in the southwest corner of Drake Park had been the final resting place for dozens of African American slaves.
Thursday, though, the elementary schoolers had a different, but related purpose.
Hundreds of students from P.S. 48 gathered in Drake Park to carry out a program they’d planned themselves.
“Bill, Hannah, Tite, Ben,” students read aloud the names of dozens of slaves known to have been buried at the site, while other students performed an elaborate, ceremonial dance while holding electric candles.
The slaves’ names they had retrieved from census records and other historic documents.
“By reading the names,” said Panaritis, the DOE historian, “unfortunately, that’s all we knew about that man or that woman. But it’s more than we knew two years ago.”
The ceremony also included a libation ritual, in which the names of beloved, deceased relatives are called out by members of the audience, and water is then poured into the ground to acknowledge their passing.
“This was intentionally spiritual,” Panaritis said about the ceremony.
The reason for that, his colleague and fellow discoverer of the burial ground, teacher Czarka, said, was that the students were strongly affected by the fact that someone could be forgotten for so long.
However, said Czarka, “the kids have come together… and made sure they were written back into history.”
The state has given a $180,000 grant to fund the creation of a permanent memorial to the fallen slaves. The design process for that marker is still underway.