Students from the Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica Estates are looking to place a national spotlight on their effort to identify people buried more than 100 years ago in an African burial ground in Maple Grove Cemetery.
Carl Bellenas, a social studies teacher who is working with the children, said Thursday that he has submitted their project to the producers of “History Detectives,” a show shown on the Public Broadcasting System.
His hope is that inclusion could help them identify the 308 members of the First Colored Presbyterian Church who were removed from church vaults in 1877 and reintured in Maple Grove beneath a monument that still exists.
The inscription states “Removals from the church vaults at the corner of Prince and Marion streets New York, February 1877.”
Just who they were remained a mystery until they took up the search.
“There is an Egyptian proverb that if you say the name of the dead, they come back to life again,” Bellenas said. “The meaning of their lives comes back into existence. They are not forgotten. Their story is told again, and we can learn from it.”
Also known as the Shiloh Presbyterian Church, the congregation was founded in 1822 in Manhattan. Its storied history included being a part of the Underground Railroad that helped escaped Southern slaves to freedom before the Civil War.
“History Detectives” features five experts who combine knowledge of things such as history, archeology, art and modern technology to delve into myths, folklore and historic buildings and objects.
Chris Bryson, one of the show’s executive producers, said that while there is no guarantee the project will be included, they are always happy to be contacted with such projects.
“This is exactly the kind of project our researchers are interested in getting for consideration,” Bryson said. “We are encouraged that the general public takes such in interest, in that material for the show comes from viewers. More that half the topics are viewer submissions.”
Bellenas acknowledges that their mystery will face stiff competition when the producers make their decision.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he said.
And they have not stopped looking for new ways to crack the mystery in libraries, on the Internet and using plain old shoe leather.
“One of the students, Alex Samaroo, recently followed several Internet links until he found the contents of The Freedom Journal,” he said. The African-American paper was founded by the church’s first pastor, the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish, in 1827.
Bellenas’s group also has attracted the attention of Robert Wallace, an English professor at Northern Kentucky University.
Wallace wrote extensively about Shiloh Presbyterian in a 2005 book on abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who spoke at the church in 1849, and novelist Herman Melville, who lived nearby in Manhattan and whom Wallace said had anti-slavery overtones in his works.
“It’s very exciting that the students made this connection,” Wallace said. “Shiloh was very prominent in the cultural life of New York City in the mid-19th Century. It was a crucible of a multiracial society and was important to the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad ...This could be a very important historical discovery.”