After 10 months of research, a volunteer Queens historian has uncovered an African burial ground at a Kew Gardens cemetery.
Carl Ballenas last week announced the discovery after investigating a mysterious monument near the Lefferts Boulevard entrance to Maple Grove Cemetery. Armed only with the stone’s vague inscription — “Removals from church vaults at the corner of Prince and Marion streets New York, February 1877” — Ballenas, a social studies teacher who donates his time to Maple Grove, set out to determine the contents below the monument and the narrative behind it.
“It’s a phenomenal thing — history being brought to life here and it was right under our noses,” he noted with a laugh.
The monument is believed to be the marker of the burial site of 308 members of the First Colored Presbyterian Church, which was established in 1822 by the Rev. Samuel Cornish and more commonly known as the Shiloh Presbyterian Church. It was part of the Underground Railroad network of people and places that helped slaves escape, and relocated throughout Manhattan several times, including to a building at the corner of Prince and Marion streets, where it operated for nearly 30 years.
Ballenas said that according to Maple Grove’s interment records, in 1877, the church’s burial vaults were moved to the Queens cemetery, which was just two years old at the time. “Note — Int. 29 — 308 removals from the Presbyt. Ch. Vault New York City, corner of Prince and Marion St.,” reads a note in the 1877 interment ledger.
“They put a stone monument on top of this mass grave, but it doesn’t name the church,” Ballenas said. “I don’t know why.”
Ballenas’s ongoing research of the monument, which initially was spurred by students’ questions during Maple Grove’s annual “Spirits Alive” Halloween reception, is aimed at tying up the story of the sacred site and who might be buried there. The Richmond Hill native, who teaches at Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica Estates and co-authored a history of Maple Grove, said it’s possible that Cornish and fellow ministers Theodore Wright and Henry Highland Garnet — all important individuals in African-American history — are interred under the monument.
“Maybe with a little bit of luck, we can find the burial records for that church,” Ballenas said.
Bonnie Dixon, executive vice president and general manager of the 65-acre cemetery, said the historian’s work is crucial.
“I think it’s important that we recognize the fact that [the church members] are here and we pay tribute to them,” she asserted.
Ballenas is also contributing to Maple Grove’s effort to design and construct a memorial to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. He said that regardless of the project or program, discoveries such as the burial ground still are all about arming future generations with lessons of the past.
“It’s unlimited, what we can do with this wonderful resource,” Ballenas said. “It opens up doors. In order to make history come alive, you have to find things like this. It’s beneath our feet.”