The oldest church in Harlem celebrated its 350th anniversary amid a battle for its original cemetery, buried beneath an MTA bus stop on First Avenue between 126th and 127th Streets.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, New York State Assembly candidate Robert Rodriguez, City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito and Sen. Bill Perkins attended the celebratory service on Sunday Oct. 24, congratulating the Church on its anniversary. A proclamation from the mayor’s office stated that Oct.24 will be known hereafter as Elmendorf Reformed Church Day.
Perkins, who in March held the Senate hearing which kick-started the Church’s campaign to protect its cemetery against further MTA construction work, told The Uptowner that the slaves who built the first road to Harlem left a legacy preserved by Elmendorf. “It is astonishing that a descendant would go back 350 years to reclaim the history of those bodies, those souls, who actually built the place,” said Perkins of Elmendorf’s current pastor, the Rev. Patricia A. Singletary
“This is more than about the church,” Singletary said of the Harlem milestone. “This is about celebrating the village.”
Robed in white at the Sunday service, standing under a big yellow cross, Singletary, who has led the battle to reclaim the 17th century cemetery, honored members of the African Burial Ground Task Force with certificates for their work.
The Elmendorf cemetery closed for use in the mid-19th century, at which point the white bodies buried there were moved to another location, leaving only African-American remains. The site was built over by the Third Avenue Railway in 1947 before the MTA bus depot arrived, said Hilary Ring, MTA government affairs director in March. The burial ground came to public attention when the MTA announced plans to rebuild the depot on the site for 2015 .
“We would like them to remove it and never build it again,” said task force member Christine Campbell, who wrote “Sweet Spirit,” a play about the burial ground.
This is not the first time that an African burial ground has been discovered in New York City. Workers at Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway discovered the remains of 400 people during construction. In 2006, the site was memorialized with a sculpture and now also includes a visitors center.
Surveys and archives, some held locally at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, show the existence of the burial ground on First Avenue, between 126th and 127th Streets. The records list the names and the ethnicity of those buried.
Local parish registers also show that the Elmendorf burial ground was shared by at least three Harlem congregations, said historian and Landmarks Preservation Committee member Christopher Moore, who worked for the preservation of the African-American cemetery downtown.
Several colonial maps leave the size of the burial ground in dispute. The last known written property record from the 19th century logs a burial ground of one-fourth acre underneath the bus depot, said Moore, but he believes that the area it occupied is much larger than the MTA recognizes because of the cemetery’s long duration. It was used for an estimated 200 years.
The MTA declined an interview, but MTA spokeswoman Deirdre Parker said in email that “the precise dimensions of the burial ground are difficult to establish, but historical accounts and early maps indicate that it covered about one-quarter of an acre.”
An MTA investigation will look into the site’s possible archaeological value and the likelihood that remains “have survived the disturbances created by subsequent building on the site, including the construction of the current depot,” wrote Parker.
If there are untouched human bones under the bus depot, they would be buried 25 feet deep after years of burials and landfills, said Moore.
Singletary emphasized that the task force is currently communicating with the MTA in “a collaborative manner to honor the burial ground.”
“We are working to set a date with the task force co-chair for a working session,” wrote Parker, “to share our findings and review the research from the task force and the Elmendorf Church. Once that is done, the findings will be presented to the State Historical Preservation Office and the Landmark Preservation Committee.”
Church archives have allowed the task force to determine the family lines and some biographical details of people buried between 126th and 127th Streets. The Nichols family, for instance, belonged to St. Mary’s Church, lost a baby on Sept. 8, 1854 and buried her at Elmendorf’s cemetery.
The Elmendorf Reformed Church was originally known as the Reformed Low Dutch Church of Haarlem. Its first building, at First Avenue and 127th Street, was connected directly to the burial ground, first used around 1664. In 1658 Governor Peter Stuyvesant planned for a second village in Manhattan, ordering slaves to build a road from Greenwich Village. The Church was organized in August 1660 under a Royal Charter, when Haarlem received its village charter.
“Who is the original MTA?” asked Moore. “The slaves.”