One major hot topic from Elmhurst has been the ongoing saga, and subsequent fate of an African-American burial ground, re-discovered in 2011, primed for development, then put on the market for $13.8 million dollars. The site, an oddly shaped triangular piece of land, at 47-11 90th street, roughly an acre in size, rests beside the LIRR, and is essentially the backlot area of 90-56 Corona Avenue; all part of the same development location, now separated by a small parking lot.
News broke in October 2011, upon the discovery of a body, first noted as a possible crime scene. Yet, upon inspection, it was revealed that the body, held in a metallic coffin, was over 150 years old, and was a direct link to the early thriving African-American community that settled in this area of Newtown, just after slavery ended in 1827. In 1828, a white farmer named William Hunter sold his deed to the land for $75 to four former slaves; Coles, Dualing, Potter, and Peterson, members of the United African Society. Although, slavery officially ended in the North in 1827, it was a gradual process of manumission, some receiving freedom much earlier, and documents are scarce on this issue. It was at this corner, they set up a carpentry shop, and a place of worship known as the Union African Church. (Corona Avenue was called Union Street at the time). The location went through several congregations and structures over time. By 1838, preacher, orator, traveler, educator, intellectual, and visionary James W. Pennington came to teach at a school on site on separate occasions, left briefly to obtain a degree from Yale Divinity, then returned as the church’s pastor. He again returned to the church in the late 1850’s and resumed teaching. By 1838, the church was ‘Presbyterian.’ During its century timeline, the church has a storied history; often there were frictions between Presbyterian and Methodist groups vying for control of the church, and third parties were required to settle these disputes. St. Mark’s AME was the last congregation to worship there, until pressured to move in 1929, as the widening of Corona Avenue extended to the Church’s doorstep, and business and industry began to take hold in the vicinity. (Although there were previous Methodists groups, St. Mark’s AME officially assumed the site in 1906 under Mr. Purcell Harris, and its new, and more decorative church building was completed by 1911.) St. Mark’s sold, then relocated to East Elmhurst-Corona, where it remains on 95th Street and Northern Boulevard, its second spot since moving from Newtown. The church, due to financial constraints requested the city to assist in repatriating remains from the burial ground to Mount Olivet cemetery, which the city denied. Only twenty souls are known to have been removed to Mount Olivet at that time, out of a possible 300 or so, as stated in records. (It is suggested in writings that burials may have occurred prior to 1828 and may have extended to lands along the vein of what became the LIRR). The burial ground became de-mapped by the city in 1931. On old maps, it is referred to as the Colored Dutch Lane Cemetery. (Union St. was called Dutch Lane, and thereafter Corona Avenue). The vibrant Newtown African-American community itself, also dispersed, having settled in other parts of NYC; Manhattan, Jamaica, and a little further North, In Corona, Queens.
By the 1940’s, the space was acquired by the Peerless Instruments Co., which operated there until 1986. It had government contracts to make submarine and airplane parts for the military. After four decades, Peerless left, and the corner rectangular building became vacant. It was learned that mercury, lead and other hazardous chemicals contaminated the grounds, and it was declared a superfund site. This was of concern as it is a stone’s throw from Newtown High School across the avenue. Documents have been hard to access as to when the cleanup was performed, but the site was later determined to be ‘safe.’ By 2009, it was acquired by a partnership led by Bo Jin Zhu, which demolished the Peerless building, intending for a residential-retail complex. During clearing for construction, a bulldozer’s back hoe clipped the casket of who we now refer to as the Iron Coffin lady, damaging her upper extremities. After temporarily ceasing work on 90-56 Corona Ave, the developers were quoted as being furious for the delay. However, after company name changes, the residential retail complex was eventually built and now stands on that corner. As for the Iron Coffin lady, a meticulous amount of research, and array of tests were performed, guided by forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch, then of the Chief Medical Examiner’s office, out of his own volition; including facial imaging, and even plowing through census records were done to determine her identity. There was also an immediate concern, as lesions were visible indicating smallpox, which was widespread at that time, but later determined that the virus could not be exposed. An accurate reconstruction of her face was later revealed to the public. Poring through census records, candidates as to her identity narrowed down to finally one, Martha Peterson, who died in 1850, at the age of 26. Peterson, it was learned lived at the residence of William Raymond, the brother in law, and company partner of Almond Fisk, the founder of the Fisk Casket Company, whose foundry was located around 69th street, between present day Roosevelt Avenue, and Queens Boulevard. It is supposed she worked as a domestic servant, and based on her clothing, including manner of dress, and being buried with her hair pick, she was a much-loved member of the community. Her extended family of Petersons formed over ten percent of the population of Newtown at the time, although she herself, was childless. The question remained, why was it chosen to have her buried in such a casket, which at the time were about $100, whereby standard wooden caskets ran only $2 a pop. The answer, researchers believe, is that it was an extra, left in storage because the patent mark was backwards, and was over six feet long, and Martha was a petite woman, about five foot three. Almond Fisk, trained at stove and boiler making, took to creating these unusual sarcophagus-like caskets, after the death of his brother, who died in Mississippi; his body buried there, as it could not be transported back North, as it would take several days. Bodies would decay and were often buried at the place of death. So, Almond developed his unique brand of caskets, with a space to view the deceased’s face, in order to preserve the body over duration of time and transport. Fisk, himself died young, at age 28, also in 1850, but after a prolonged illness.
In October of 2018, a PBS Special ‘Secrets of the Dead,’ premiered detailing many aspects of the Iron Coffin Lady’s story, as well as a companion television special on WNET, which spotlighted three of NYC’s early African-American communities; Weeksville, Seneca Village, and Newtown, Queens. The premiere was held at St. Mark’s AME, and attended by Church elders, producers, and preservationists, including the Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society (EHCPS). This group was founded by local Newtown Civic members, who wished to proceed more proactively with landmarking, researching, documenting, educating, and preserving history, as it has physically vanished so rapidly, from a community which dates back to 1652, the second oldest settlement in Queens, behind Flushing. In early November 2018, EHCPS put through the landmarking application to the Landmarks Preservation Commision (LPC), and this process is showing itself as a gradual one. The group has also created petitions and sent many letters of support to the LPC from Elected officials, church leaders of different backgrounds, and other preservationists. Members of the EHCPs have taken many steps to highlight this site. They have appeared on news segments for channels 1, 2, and 5 at the site, and numerous community and online publications, and eventually the NY Times covered the story. EHCPS also does walking tours of the area, stopping at the site, which is currently a dumping and pick up site rental spot for trucks. The EHCPS group, which consists of Marialena Giampino, James McMenamin, Jennifer Ochoa, and James Ng were also awarded for their grassroots preservation efforts in the community at a yearly ceremony on April 30th downtown. The street sign on that corner of 90th street and Corona Avenue was co-named for James W. Pennington over a decade ago.
The prime reason that development of the back lot has not continued unabated is the law that stipulates that St. Marks AME, as the last congregation of the location, must be consulted and any disturbance of this historic burial ground would be illegal. That bodies are still buried at the site is not in dispute. There is question over the amount of bodies buried. The original archaeologist went with the figure of over 300 burials, as was recorded in multiple sources, and suggested further investigation be performed. However, the developer’s archaeologist who surveyed the scene asserts that a ground penetrating radar scan was ‘inconclusive.’ He stated that deep digging occurred throughout the site, and evidence of a group of burial pits was only found towards the back part of the triangle. These pits number into the mid-teens. Bodies especially for paupers were stacked atop one another, so it is difficult to speculate on a number. It is possible to speculate that earlier disturbances long ago may have accidentally resulted in the removal of bodies, as wooden coffins suffered gradation due to the elements and exposed bones may have mistaken for wood. The EHPCS feels that another deeply expansive analysis to fully determine what lies beneath would be appropriate as it would fully and precisely provide an exact figure to the record.
The question is: What’s next? The LPC is continuing to mull over the landmark status application, and support letters are still being sent. Letters of support can be sent to: RFE@lpc.nyc.gov. Reverend Kimberly Detheridge of St. Mark’s AME, after continued pressure, has had negotiations with the developer’s side; a couple of meetings mediated by Councilman Danny Dromm. Currently, talks appear to have reached an impasse. The lot, as mentioned, comes with restrictions. The developer, who intends to build a five-story condominium, has offered a 5,000 square foot space as memorial on the ground floor. If the site is sold, is there someone out there with deep pockets who can save and preserve the site completely, or a developer that may be more keenly sensitized to history and the African- American community? Is there a philanthropist, or even the Parks Dept that could intervene, in order to prevent what would become a travesty? The site’s listing price of $13.8 million is also a highball number. Consider that the Entirety of that space was purchased for $5.9 million in 2009. (Case in point: Elmhurst’s beloved music Mecca, Terraza #7 at 40-19 Gleane Street, was sold for a little less than $7 million when its asking price was twice that amount.)
One theme that continues to pop up is that of ‘legacy.’ Certainly, the developer sees dollar signs, and prefers to cram as many people as possible, into an already heavily overcrowded community, which has a noticeably taxed strain on its infrastructure. Overseas developers have already gobbled up vast chunks of Elmhurst, leveled historic homes, buildings, and heavily modified places of worship. Another issue of relevance is the lack of access; the point of entry to this site is a walk-through gravel path leading to the parking lot. How is it possible to even entertain the notion of granting building permits to a blocked off location where people are supposedly to reside, especially in case of emergency? ‘Legacy’ also applies to elected officials, who would like to see their list of accomplishments recognized in their dawning days, and of course the church, whose decisions will mark and sway its path for generations to come. The church has the upper hand. As we await the ruling of the landmarks commission and await a ruling, why then compromise at all, until a decision is reached? Even if the decision may not be positive, it can always be re-submitted on a future date, meaning this saga can drag on and on. The EHCPS certainly stands in solidarity with the church (and will abide by the church elders wishes), in that a loving, meaningful memorial atop the bones of this tiny field would be appropriate; perhaps, a cultural center featuring artifacts, lectures, and a communal meditative space, and garden. The community of souls that once suffered, prayed, and fought for a freer existence are deserving of that acknowledgement. This hallowed ground is a testament for struggle, and a condition for future remembrance. Thinking of the current climate shown in society, how would one’s legacy be perceived 10, 20, 50, 100 years from now if someone agreed to or signed off on a five-story monstrosity squished behind buildings, on top of a historic African-American burial ground? Let’s not leave out the legacy of James W. Pennington, a towering historical figure, an escaped slave, thinker, and abolitionist, who navigated the Underground Railroad. A site such as this ought to be saved, even for his sheer presence. Booker T. Washington also visited Elmhurst in 1914, and spoke about St. Mark’s AME, in a speech at the First Presbyterian Church on Queens Boulevard, trying to drum up support for the church at the time amid financial woes. Protecting and preserving this site is of paramount importance, as other sites in Lower Manhattan, Staten Island, and Harlem have received their due prominence, so does Newtown. It is a tangible part of history, a physical space that merits honor; of archaeological and cultural significance, not just to N.Y.C, but of what should be of National interest as a powerful reminder of its past. The EHPCS has a website and Facebook page which is continually updated. This fall, two new walking tours of Elmhurst are planned, and a new lecture series featuring speakers including noted forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch. On September 21, at Middleburgh Triangle, by 90th Street and Corona Avenue; the ‘Iron Coffin Lady’ documentary will be re-shown outside, co-sponsored with community board 4. Stay tuned for further updates as this story continues progressing.
James McMenamin is a lifelong resident of Elmhurst, Queens. He serves as Vice President for both the Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society and the Newtown Civic Association. He has led walking tours, and aims to educate people, in order to connect historic ties from Old Newtown to the current Elmhurst community.