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Sandro Rosell
FC Barcelona President
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A landowner’s diary from the early 19th century suggests several African-American slaves may be buried under a vacant Brooklyn lot. The site, located on Ninth Street and Third Avenue, has been designated for the construction of a pre-school for up to 180 students, according to DNA   

“This neighborhood is growing both because more and more people want to come to the schools here and because of residential development,” City Councilman Brad Lander said in 2015, regarding the plans for the school’s construction. “We need to do everything we can to increase school capacity. I’m very excited that the SCA is moving forward with this site."

The School Construction Authority had planned to open the school in 2018, though the unsettling possibility of long-dead human bodies buried under the lot has complicated the proceedings. Aside from more mundane entries concerning Sunday sermons and purchases, the diary’s author, Adriance Van Brunt, explicitly refers to the burial of three black slaves, including a 12-year-old girl and an 80-year-old man. According to a NY Times report Friday, the possibility of a grave underneath the lot prompted New York’s Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation to hire an environmental consulting firm, AKRF Inc., this summer to excavate, though no remains have as yet been unearthed. 

The NY Times noted that the Van Brunt’s were a prominent landowning family in Gowanus, which was then primarily farmland and not yet part of Brooklyn. As the diary reflects, the Van Brunt’s were slaveowners, as were many (if not most) white landowners at the time. According to the New York Public Library’s Archives and Manuscripts, Adriance Van Brunt kept the diary from June 8, 1828 to March 20, 1830. Most of Van Brunt’s entries were focused on dry every day affairs, such as the prices of farm products, workers’ wages, and so forth. According to an 1800 census, the Van Brunt’s owned only two slaves at the start of the 19th Century. By 1810, they had expanded to five, though Adriance Van Brunt released two of his slaves in 1821, six years before the abolition of slavery and seven years before he began keeping the diary. 

In addition to speculation over the unmarked Van Brunt burial site, some historians believe a group of colonial soldiers from Maryland were buried in a mass grave that includes the vacant lot slated for the pre-school. 

In an 1869 book on the so-called “Battle of Brooklyn,” author T.W. Field speculated that the soldiers’ mass grave included African-American slaves, as the New York Times pointed out in its report. In his book, Field’s offered an eerie eulogy for the anonymous soldiers that appeared somewhat dismissive of the unfortunate slaves he believed they had been interred with.

“Far below the present surface,” Field wrote, “mingled with the remains of the servile sons of Africa whose burial ground it also was, lies the dust of those brave boys who found death easier than flight, and gave their lives to save their countrymen.” 

By:  Menachem Rephun