Today, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted unanimously to designate Joseph Rodman Drake Park and Enslaved People’s Burial Ground in Hunt’s Point as an individual landmark. Originally created as a memorial to local poet Joseph Rodman Drake and the area’s colonial-era landowners, the designated site and New York City park now also commemorates the enslaved people who were central to the area’s history and ensures the burial site is preserved and protected.
Joseph Rodman Drake Park and Enslaved People’s Burial Ground contains two colonial-era cemeteries: the Hunt-Willett-Leggett Cemetery, in which many of those descended from the area’s early settler families are buried, and another burial ground believed to contain the remains of people enslaved by these families prior to 1827, when slavery was abolished in New York. Those buried in the area believed to contain the remains of enslaved people are anonymous and the burial site remained unmarked until recent years, when a state grant funded an archeological study in which students from a local elementary school, P.S. 48, The Joseph Rodman Drake School, became involved, raising awareness of the site’s history.
“This designation is a clear illustration of the dignity and respect we must pay to all people who are part of our city’s history, including at this location in the heart of the Hunts Point Peninsula,” said Deputy Mayor for Housing, Economic Development, and Workforce Maria Torres-Springer. “The Landmarks Preservation Commission continues to fulfill its pledge to achieve representation that reflects the diversity of our city through equitable and careful consideration of worthy buildings and places throughout this great city through its establishment of historic districts and individual landmarks in places that have much less representation, for which I am so appreciative.”
“Sites like Joseph Rodman Drake Park and Enslaved People’s Burial Ground are important reminders of a painful period in New York history during which enslaved African and Indigenous people helped build the city, only to have their stories and final resting places remain anonymous and erased from the landscape,” said Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Sarah Carroll. “With today’s vote, the Commission continues its commitment to ensuring that designations tell the story of all New Yorkers, recognizes the significant history of this site, and honors the legacy of those buried here.”
“We are proud that this site has been recognized as an individual landmark by LPC. It’s our hope that this designation will not only serve to educate on the historical significance of the site, but also inspire remembrance and reflection on those buried there,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue. “We commend the Bronx community members and students who advocated for this designation and worked to ensure that the site’s largely forgotten history would come to light. We’re also grateful to the LPC for granting this designation and prioritizing diversity and inclusion when naming landmarks.”
“The landmarking of the Enslaved People’s Burial Ground located within Drake Park commemorates the enslaved African and Indigenous people who were central to the area’s early history and reflects the complex and often painful history of Hunts Point,” said Bronx Borough President Vanessa L. Gibson. “I want to thank LPC Chair Sarah Carroll and the LPC Commission for the preservation of this important site and commitment to ensuring that the Bronx’s rich history, diverse narratives, and the contributions of all its residents are celebrated and preserved for generations to come.”
“Throughout New York City, streets, parks and schools recognize the contributions of our city’s earliest settlers. As we’ve seen, however, so much of our history has been told from a perspective that left many silenced,” said New York City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, Jr. “At what was previously known as Joseph Rodman Drake Park in my district, critical research uncovered the true story of the region’s complicated history of enslavement of African and Indigenous people. After rallying significant community support, I was proud to be a part of the effort to permanently rename the park ‘Joseph Rodman Drake Park and Enslaved African Burial Ground.’ Today, we are taking the next step in forever recognizing our true history. By designating Joseph Rodman Drake Park and Enslaved People’s Burial Ground a New York City landmark, we are committing to honoring all of the silenced voices, and ensuring the resilience and struggle of so many is never forgotten.”
“The history of the enslaved people buried in the Joseph Rodman Drake Park & Enslaved African Burial Ground still impacts our lives today, here in The Bronx, and beyond,” said Justin Czarka, P.S. 48 educator and Hunts Point Slave Burial Ground Project co-founder. “I am reassured by the decision of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to honor the lives and story of this site. This is one step towards writing the forgotten back into our collective story. We will continue to advocate for improved protection, site interpretation, and a permanent memorial for those buried here. I would like to thank the P.S. 48 students for discovering their voice as researchers and advocates, the P.S. 48 staff who have dedicated so much time to creating real world educational opportunities for Hunts Point youth these past ten years, and all the Hunts Point Slave Burial Ground Project partners who advocated endlessly for this moment.”
Joseph Rodman Drake Park and Enslaved People’s Burial Ground is located in an area of Hunts Point that was once home to the Munsee-speaking Siwanoy people, who were displaced following the 1663 “sale” of the area to English settlers. Both New York City and Westchester County were slavery strongholds during the 1700s, and the Hunt, Willett, and Leggett families who lived in the Hunts Point area during this time enslaved African people, and at least one of these families is also known to have enslaved people of Indigenous descent. Many members of those settler families are buried in the Hunt-Willett-Leggett Cemetery, though the most famous grave belongs to poet and Hunt family friend Joseph Rodman Drake, for whom Drake Park was named when it officially opened as a New York City Park in 1910.
By contrast, those buried in the enslaved people’s cemetery are anonymous, and no records documenting their names or burials have been found. Though several early 20th century accounts describe the enslaved people’s burial ground, and a historic photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York shows headstones visible, no above-ground evidence or markers remain.
The two cemeteries faced each other across Hunts Point Road, a former Indigenous trail and 18th- and 19th-century cartway that was demapped and buried during the building of Drake Park. After 1920, published references to the enslaved people’s burial ground stopped appearing, and it was largely forgotten until new research about a decade ago led to a state grant-funded professional archeological study that found likely human burials in the section of the park identified as the enslaved people’s burial ground. Local schoolchildren from P.S. 48 became involved with the project and helped raise public awareness of the site’s history.
The survival of this arrangement—of an enslaved people’s burial ground close to, but separate from, that of their enslavers—in a public place is remarkable in New York City, providing an important window into an underrecognized history. This designation memorializes enslaved people who were central to the area’s early history, recognizes the site’s colonial-era history and establishment as a park in the early 20th century, and protects the historic physical features of the cemeteries, including burials and below-ground archaeological resources.
The Parks Department renamed Drake Park as Joseph Rodman Drake Park and Enslaved African Burial Ground in 2021 to reflect the new research and community input, and new signage was installed throughout the site. The designation name has been broadened to reflect research indicating local families also enslaved Indigenous people.
LPC’s work is guided by its Equity Framework to ensure diversity and inclusion in designations, including prioritizing and advancing designations in areas less well represented by landmarks. Joseph Rodman Drake Park and Enslaved People’s Burial Ground was identified as a designation priority as part of a recent comprehensive borough-wide survey update of the Bronx conducted by LPC’s research department. Today’s designation is a direct outcome of that survey effort, along with other recent designations in the borough such as the Bronx Opera House. Fire Alarm Telegraph Bureau, Bronx Central Office. Engine Company 88/ Ladder Company 38 Firehouse and the Samuel Gompers Industrial High School.
About the Landmarks Preservation Commission
The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is the mayoral agency responsible for protecting and preserving New York City’s architecturally, historically, and culturally significant buildings and sites.
Since its creation in 1965, LPC has granted landmark status to more than 37,900 buildings and sites, including 1,457 individual landmarks, 121 interior landmarks, 11 scenic landmarks, and 156 historic districts and extensions in all five boroughs.