Place  /  Dispatch

How the Remains of Formerly Enslaved People Came to Rest Beneath a Staten Island Strip Mall

Benjamin Prine's descendants didn’t know about their family ties – or their connection to his enslaver.

For most of her 74 years, Ruth Ann Hills took a certain innocent pride in her family’s story and its place in Staten Island history.

Generations of her family had resided in Mariners Harbor on the island’s North Shore. She and her brother David Thomas live in the house their grandfather built on Van Pelt Avenue. They had found Black ancestors on Staten Island as far back as the 1700s, and incredibly they had all eluded slavery.

Or so Hills thought.

All of that changed one day in 2021, when Hills received a visit from a filmmaker. Heather Quinlan was working on a documentary about a nearby graveyard. Over the course of her genealogical research, Quinlan had discovered that one of the people buried there was Hills’ great-great-great-grandfather.

Neither Hills nor Thomas had ever heard of the man, Benjamin Prine, but his death in 1900 at the age of 106 had been covered by the New York Times and the wire services. Prine, a U.S. veteran of the War of 1812, had been the last enslaved person born on Staten Island, Quinlan told them.

Prine had once been enslaved by Peter Van Pelt, a highly influential Dutch Reformed Church minister – meaning that the street on which the siblings now live took its name from the same white family that enslaved their ancestor.

“I thought I was a big history buff. ‘Oh, I know about history,’” Hills said. “I guess I was naive.”

Most disturbing to Hills and her brother was the revelation about Prine’s final resting place. From the 19th century until the mid-20th century, the site had various names: the Colored Burial Ground, the African Burial Ground or Cherry Lane Cemetery. Today, it is a strip mall. All signs of Prine and others who remain interred at the cemetery – anywhere from 90 to 1,000 people – have been obliterated.

“Every day, for years and years and years and years, they were just walked over and desecrated,” said Thomas, 65. “And that's just a sin to me. That's shameful.”

That could be about to change, at least in some way.


Recovering the Black Past through African American Cemeteries

METHODOLOGICAL CONTEXT: Sometimes burial sites are themselves buried, and making those sites visible is a worthwhile task in itself.