Education / Parks

Students uncover secret of Drake Park

Joe Hirsch

At a Jan. 24 press conference, PS 48 students indicate where research has led them to believe slaves of former Hunts Point estates are buried.

Senator pushes to landmark slave burial ground

Fourth-graders at PS 48 want to know who is lying under Joseph Rodman Drake Park in Hunts Point.

Since learning last January that the 19th-century owners of the land probably buried their slaves there, the English-as-a-second-language students at the peninsula’s oldest school have been using the Internet to research the history of the two-and-a-half acre park on Oak Point Avenue between Hunts Point and Longfellow avenues.

The estates of some of the wealthiest New Yorkers were once located in the area surrounding the park. But now, trucks careen past the largely forgotten speck of city parkland en route to and from the food markets.

Several decaying gravestones behind an iron fence in the middle of the park reflect the area’s history. One bears the name of the poet for whom the park was named. The others include Hunt, Leggett and Willis, the local landowners about 200 years ago, who used slaves to work their land.

But ground testing indicates that there are many other bodies buried a short distance away from the marked graves, almost certainly the remains of the slaves who worked there. So far, the students and their teachers say they have been able to trace the identities of 41 slaves who are likely among those buried.

Now their work has drawn the attention of lawmakers. At a press conference at the park on Jan. 24, State Sen. Jeff Klein announced he would push to have it recognized as a national landmark, as a cautionary reminder of the horrors of slavery.

“It’s our duty to make sure it never happens again,” Klein said. “To have students lead the way is what this is all about,” he added, thanking a dozen PS 48 students for their research.

Klein lamented that the park is “covered with asphalt and debris,” saying it was “critical that we take action to further preserve this site from further damage or desecration.”

The National Action Network, a nationwide group whose Bronx chapter is located in the Bright Temple AME Church in Hunts Point, is pushing for commemoration for the slaves, but says an expensive archaeological dig and DNA testing of any remains are still left to be done. In addition, the group says, recognition of the park as a slave burial ground should help open the city government’s eyes to economic imbalances that still exist on the peninsula two hundred years later.

“Everything under the earth is what brought us here, but we can’t ignore what’s happening above the earth,” said a representative of the group, DaShawn Williams.

At PS 48 on Spofford Avenue following the press conference, the ESL students enjoyed the school’s Friday lunch special, pizza, while discussing their work.

“We know there’s slaves underground but we don’t know where because they demolished the tombstones,” said Thomas Kelly, 10, who lives on Spofford Avenue.

The team of English and science teachers who are guiding the children through the research wants them to learn about their adopted community while sleuthing the area’s history.

“We want them to see this is their neighborhood, this is where they’re from. This is not what the place was always like,” said Justin Czarka, 33, who has been teaching ESL at the school for 12 years. Czarka estimates that about 40 students have been involved in the research so far.

“They’re new in this neighborhood, we want them to appreciate it,” said Grace Binuya, 39, who has taught ESL at PS 48 for the last 12 years.

Teaching historical research to preteens is a learning process in itself for the teachers, said Czarka. They hand out white, rubber gloves when they take them to the park, to give the students a feel for working with delicate materials.

“There’s no textbook that tells you how to do this,” he said, adding they want the students to “do what historians do.”

But Czarka and Binuya emphasize, they want their students not only to understand the area’s past, but to learn to advocate for its present. One day last spring they took them to the park to learn about the trees and leaves, and were dismayed to find the weeds were knee-high where the parks department hadn’t yet gotten around to cutting. They say the project can help the young people speak out.

“It’s a city park but it’s their park,” said Czarka.

Binuya wants the children to learn that they will benefit by looking around at what’s right at their fingertips.

“There are a lot of treasures you can find in your own neighborhood,” she said.

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