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Setback In Suit To Reclaim Burial Ground

Posted by Agnes Wittmann to NDN AIM

By Merle English

STAFF WRITER

November 15, 2002

Descendants of American Indians in Queens and Long Island on Friday lost the first round in a court action aimed at forcing the city to restore an ancient cemetery in Flushing that was converted to a playground nearly 70 years ago.

U.S. District Court Judge Leo Glasser in Brooklyn denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that would have required the city to remove recreational equipment at the Martin’s Field playground at 164th Street and 46th Avenue, and rebuild what was known as the Colored Cemetery of Flushing — a pauper’s burial ground.

The remains of more than than 1,000 people — mostly African-Americans and American Indians — were interred at the cemetery from 1840 to 1898, according to an archaeologist the city hired.

The plaintiffs, who are cousins: Mandingo Tshaka, 71, a Bayside activist and retired singer; Ralph Bunn, Nadene Bunn and Grace Bunn — all of Wheatley Heights — contend that four of their ancestors were buried in the potter’s field in the late 1870s. Their marble headstones were destroyed when the playground was built in 1936.

In court papers, the cousins say they belong to the Bunn and Curry families, who were members of the Shinnecock, Montauket, Poospatuk and Matinecock Indian tribes.

They say they were irreparably harmed when the city wrongfully made Martin’s Field into a public park.

The plaintiffs asked the court to fine the city $1 million per day until the cemetery is re-created. They also requested compensatory and exemplary damages of more than $30 trillion.

The cousins sought redress in court — also naming Comptroller William Thompson and the Parks Department as defendants — after exhausting several attempts — since the 1960’s, including publicity, petitions and a City Council hearing — to get the city to return Martin’s Field to its previous use.

“We are shocked, saddened and outraged when we see a public park where our ancestors’ graves and headstones should be,” they said in court documents.

“Each day that they don’t put them back (the headstones) is a new injury,” Paul Kerson, the plaintiffs’ attorney, told the court.

The city — which recently halted infrastucture work at Wayanda Park in Hollis after finding a human skull and bones — sought dismissal of their complaint.

“We cannot dig up the present and the future to re-create the past,” Warren Shaw of the city’s Law Department told the court.

He noted that 30 city parks are built over graveyards, among them Bryant Park, Washington Square Park and Foley Square.

Glasser reserved decision on the motion to dismiss. He said, “There is nothing before me that would lead me to conclude irreparable harm, nor reason to upset the status quo.”

“I’m very dismayed,” Ralph Bunn said later. “You feel when you pass away at least you’re protected. Now you can’t be safe, dead or alive.”

Shaw told the court the city acknowledges “the appeal and emotional force of the plaintiffs desire to memorialize their ancestors.” But he said they did not have a legal claim; that the statute of limitations expired more than 60 years ago.

The “extraordinary relief” the plaintiffs sought, he said in court, would be “a burden on the city,” Shaw said.

Kerson said the plaintiffs would appeal if the judge’s ruling is unfavorable.

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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