Within Joseph Rodman Drake Park is a small cemetery named after a poet who is laid to rest inside the iron fence. Next to Drake are colonial families with names like Hunt, Leggett, and Willett. Those names have become streets, points, and landmarks. Those early prominent families settled on acres and acres of farms and forests. Thomas Boggart Leggett reflected about his home in a letter from 1892, “one might roam all day through the woods and fields without going off the property. The nearest village was three miles away.”
Today, Hunt’s Point is full of factories, a large market, and shops. There is little leftover from those Colonial Era days. Even the graves within Drake Park are hard to read after years of neglect. There are trees that line a short path and few benches to sit on while eating from nearby food trucks. It is easy to wander through the park with no conception of the history that lays underneath.
During the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the names of Hunt, Leggett, and Willett were among the ranks. Their service is chronicled and their families continue to hold their ancestors with reverence and appreciation. There is a graveyard feet away from the gated cemetery where names are unknown and their descendants can never trace.
Before Drake Park was established, Hunt’s Point Road ran through the area with one cemetery on one side and the slave graveyard on the other. Few names were inscribed on the tombstones. Most stones stated the position the slaves held, such as “nanny” and “coachman.” A photograph from 1910 shows the slave burial ground with overgrown weeds and broken tombstones. The city took over the park in 1915 and replaced the road with grass, dirt, and asphalt, similar to what is there now. Lost within the restoration of the park was the location of the burial ground.
The people who served the area’s establishment were forgotten until 2013 when a local school became aware of the photo and initiated an investigation. A group of scientists were called in and used ground-penetrating radar and discovered skeletons below the surface. Almost 7 years later, despite promises and funds raised, there are no monuments in the park that tell the stories of those enslaved and buried. There’s a brief blurb on the park’s sign, but no further information is presented. A fence surrounds those within the cemetery, but people are free to walk down the hill where the slaves are buried.
I found out about the burial while researching for places to visit during February for Black History Month. I take my kids to places that focus on the African American experience during the month. After coming across a New York Times article, I thought it would be an interesting location to visit. After walking around the park and looking for a plaque or anything that recognized the buried slaves, I realized I would not be finding any such information.
The last known slave to be interred in the Slave Burial Ground was a woman named, “Aunt Rose.” She was described as “an old Negress” and worked for the Leggett family in their mansions in 1840, which was years after NYC abolished slavery (1827). Since those buried in the graveyard are immortalized by having streets named after them, it’s time we have an Aunt Rose Way. Naming a street after her is an attainable long shot, but it doesn’t take much to place a plaque or statue to honor those whose backs the nation was built upon.
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National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC