In 1827, Wynant Van Zandt pledged to give the land surrounding the highest hill on his property for the construction of a new church, and 17 neighbors all pledged additional funds toward the construction of a church and Sunday school. In 1829 the cornerstone was laid, and the whole community gathered to raise the frame. One of the most precious stories that has been passed down to us is that after this day of hard work together, everyone sat down to eat together at one long table that stretched half a block down the road. We cherish this story because it speaks to the kind of sacramental community we feel called to be: a community where all are welcome, where all bring their gifts and share their burdens, and all are nourished at one common table.
For the last three years, however, we at Zion have been struggling to reconcile that beautiful story with our discovery that many of our founding families enslaved other human beings in the years leading up to Zion’s founding. We have been asking how to live more deeply into the gifts of Zion’s legacy, and asking how we are called to heal the wounds of that legacy. We have been living into these questions through small group reflection, restorative justice circles, and the Thin Places podcast, where members of the congregation shared stories about moments of transformation in their own lives. On November 2, 2023, we will dedicate a permanent memorial to the children of God that our founding families enslaved.
There is so much in Zion’s history that resonates with the image of Zion as one long table: as a place of inclusive, participatory communion. Since the consecration of the church by Bishop John Henry Hobart on July 30, 1830, Zion has been a site for faithful worship: a place where generations of people have been nourished by the Word of God and by Holy Eucharist, where they have been baptized and confirmed, grown up in faith, been married, and, in God’s good time, committed to the ground.
Zion has also been a place from which the good news has gone out: The Rev. Henry Beare, who was rector of Zion for nearly 50 years in the 19th century, averaged nearly 300 pastoral visits to the people of Little Neck and what became Douglaston. And Zion has been the site for community creativity and fun. Zion has hosted nearly 200 Strawberry Festivals each June. There have been countless rehearsals for youth and adult choirs, and our parish hall has been the stage for hundreds of community theater productions.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Zion found ways to share food and fellowship with neighbors experiencing food insecurity. More recently, Zion has been a leader in the Douglaston Open Hearts Initiative, which seeks to make this neighborhood a place of compassionate welcome for women moving into transitional housing across Northern Boulevard. Through all of this, Zion has been a place of vibrant spiritual life in community. As one of our members said of Zion recently, “it’s like having another family.” Our inheritance includes such profound gifts.
But what of the wounds that need to be healed? What of the sins that have been hidden rather than repented of? We must hold the image of Zion as one common table stretching down the block in tension with the knowledge that many of Zion’s families had enslaved members of their household who were never welcome to eat at the family table: children of God whose labor was exploited, whose humanity was not recognized, whose dignity was denied. We still cherish the image of Zion as one long common table—but not as something that was achieved at the start. We cherish it as God’s dream for us—which we have yet to make real.
What we know about enslavement in Zion’s history
It was legal and quite common for New York State residents to enslave others until 1827—and slavery was not completely abolished in the state until 1841. Wynant Maria Van Zandt and his wife Maria enslaved at least 4 people. It was recorded in the Van Zandt family Bible that Charles, Elsy, Cesar, and Margaret Pine were given—as property—to Wynant and Maria by Maria’s father, Israel Underhill, “when quite young in years.” Born into bondage, these children of God were sent to serve the Van Zandts in Manhattan, where Wynant was a prominent merchant and alderman of the City, and after their move to what is now Douglaston.
(from The Underhill Genealogy, Vol II, p. 187.)
Consulting the federal census and records from the Town of Flushing, we have found that 12 of the 18 signatories to Zion’s articles of incorporation had enslaved people living in their households prior to 1827. Our conservative estimate is that Zion’s founding families enslaved at least 43 people. Of that group, we know only a few names: we have found a 1807 record of a Mary, enslaved by Obadiah Valentine; at the time, Mary was 7 years old. We have a record of a Tom, enslaved by Richard Allen. We have a record that on August 22, 1814, an enslaved woman named Coney gave birth to a baby boy, who she named Isaac. At the moment of his birth, Isaac became the legal property of Richard Foster, because Foster had enslaved Coney, and under New York State law, any child birthed by Foster’s property became his property as well.
(It is possible that Richard Foster still legally enslaved Isaac fifteen years later, at the time Zion was built. We have no manumission record for Isaac, and because of a loophole written into New York’s Gradual Emancipation Act, he could well have been held in “indentured servitude” until his 28th birthday in 1842—enslavement by another name.
We know so little about these children of God. We know so little about the lives they lived during their enslavement; we do not know how many died in bondage; we know so little about what happened to those who lived in freedom. To this date, we have been able to piece together some information about Elsy and Margaret Pine—the two women enslaved by the Van Zandt family. Their stories are theirs alone, but they also help us imagine the circumstances that others navigated in the early nineteenth century
In 1813, Elsy married Cato Bates at Grace Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens. In 1816, she was manumitted by Wynant Van Zandt; by the early 1840s, she and Cato had settled in Jamaica with their son, Benjamin. In Jamaica, the family became part of the free Black community known as “the Green,” or “Douglaston” (so named for the concentration of Black families living on Douglass St.). In this other Douglaston, their family became active participants in the struggle for the equality and dignity of Black people and the safety of Black communities. Cato became a member of the Colored Citizens Convention, which organized for the right of Black people to vote. In 1853, Benjamin was the secretary of an organization that petitioned the then-village of Jamaica for the protection of Black citizens, who only wanted to be able to “purchase our groceries and return to our dwellings” without being “beaten and insulted by [a] body or club of men.”
In the struggle of Elsy’s family, we glimpse that, even after emancipation, free Black people in New York were shut out of political participation and barred from many economic opportunities; many lived in fear of harassment and violence from white people. We glimpse the courage and resilience of the Black community in the face of racist discrimination and violence.
Margaret Pine’s story is in some ways more difficult to parse. Most of what we know about Margaret comes from her obituary, which was written by Charles Van Zandt, one of Wynant and Maria’s sons. Charles clearly cared for Margaret (who likely nursed him as a child): he paid for her to be buried in his own family plot in Green-Wood Cemetery, and erected a marble headstone at her grave. But his portrait of Margaret in the obituary is not a reliable source: it was written with no small measure of hazy sentimentality and racist paternalism. What we can glean from this account is that Margaret did not want to move with the Van Zandt family “to the country”—to the 120-acre plot that Wynant and Maria had bought here in what is now Douglaston. According to Charles, Wynant offered to manumit her: to legally free her from slavery. But it appears that Margaret rejected the transactional terms of manumission, which is that she would move instantly from the indignity and exploitation of slavery to the insecurity and danger of surviving on her own, with no assets, no community safety net, few economic opportunities, and fewer legal protections. So, in the words of the obituary,
Margaret refused to be manumitted. She told her master when he proposed to do so, that he had her services for the best part of her life, and that she wished him to take care of her as long as she lived, and he willingly consented.
Margaret understood the precarious position that she would be in as a free Black woman living alone in New York City, and she was unwilling to start with a “clean slate.” She also rejected, in other words, the most basic terms of enslavement: that enslaved people were disposable property to be used up and discarded, that enslavers owed them neither compensation nor care for their labor or for their lives. Both had been stolen from them.
From the obituary, it appears that Wynant indeed did not manumit Margaret, instead giving her a letter which confirmed her status as his property, and which gave her permission to live and work independently in Manhattan: in the twisted logic of the time, Margaret would have enjoyed greater legal protection as the property of a white man than she did as a free Black woman.
The bearer, Margaret Pine, is my servant. She has lived with me from her infancy. She is sober, honest, and faithful, but is averse to living in the country. She has my permission to go to New York, for the purpose of going out to service, and to receive her wages, until this permission is revoked by me, of which due notice will be given to any person or persons in whose employ she may be. I further declare that it is my wish, and I am now willing to manumit her according to law.
Given under my hand, at Little Neck Farm, this 16th day of September 1813.
WYNANT VAN ZANDT.
It is unclear what, if any, financial or personal support the Van Zandt family provided to Margaret after 1813. But some relationship evidently continued. Wynant’s son Charles apparently believed that this arrangement constituted Margaret’s ongoing enslavement to the family, even after New York definitively ended slavery in 1841. Margaret died in 1854, working as a laundress in Manhattan until her death. On her headstone and in the obituary Charles wrote, he identified Margaret Pine as “The Last Slave in New York.”
Ongoing research and work on Zion’s history
As we have been trying to learn about the presence and absence of Black people at Zion over the last nearly 200 years, we’ve also been trying to understand Zion’s complex entanglement with the Matinecock people. Zion was built on the ancestral land of the Matinecock. We’ve rediscovered some parts of our legacy that we want to celebrate—for example, that Charles Waters, who was Matinecock and likely a native Algonquin speaker, served on Zion’s vestry and was later elected warden. Given what we know about the many ways that native people and native culture were being attacked and undermined in that era, it’s a real point of pride that Zion would elect a Matinecock man to its highest office of lay leadership.
But we’ve also learned about some of the reasons that Zion is a place and symbol of pain, exclusion, and erasure for Matinecock people. One of the most difficult moments in this story came in 1931, when the City of New York desecrated an ancestral Matinecock burial ground a few blocks from Zion, in order to widen Northern Boulevard. The Matinecock had fought that plan for years, led by Chief Wild Pigeon—the nephew of Zion’s former warden Charles Waters. But we have no record that anyone from Zion joined in solidarity with that fight to protect those graves, even though Charles Waters, Zion’s own former warden, was buried there. The City hastily exhumed the remains of about 30 Matineock people and reinterred them in Zion’s churchyard. And then, as if to pour salt in that wound, Zion invited a white man to design a memorial at that new gravesite: a split rock that reads “Here lies the last of the Matinecock.” The bitter irony is that Matinecock people were present at the unveiling of that memorial, and Matinecock people still come to Zion to bury their loved ones among their ancestors. From the graveside they can see a memorial that declares they no longer exist.
So, needless to say, there is work to be done at Zion to bring this complex history to light. But the existing memorial points to the real danger of doing that work in isolation, of “us” making a statement about “them.” We’re very blessed to be in relationship with Matinecock people living in Queens and on Eastern Long Island: Donna Barron, the family historian of the Matinecock, graciously shared some of her stories and reflections in a moving episode of Thin Places. One of our next steps is to raise the question of repair with them—and to face our entangled histories together.
Zion is surrounded by a churchyard that includes a labyrinth open to the public and the graves of Zion’s faithful parishioners through the generations. Many early settlers of Little Neck and Douglaston are buried in this historic churchyard, as well as the Matinecock ancestors who lived on this land before white settlers arrived. If you like, stroll the grounds and read the markers, or use this brief guide, which highlights some of the graves.
Begin at the large stone cross on the west side of the building.
1. “Cutter” cross
You are standing in the oldest part of Zion Churchyard. Here are the weathered markers of families who buried loved ones following the 1830 dedication of Zion Church: Haviland, Allen, Cornell, Hicks, Lawrence. The family of Wynant Van Zandt, who actually donated the land on which the church stands, is buried in a vault directly under the existing church and a marble tablet in his memory has been placed above the inside of the west door.
The large cross marks the plot of Bloodgood Haviland Cutter, a pillar of Zion who as a boy remembered the raising of the original Church structure and later donated several acres to expand the eastern border of the churchyard. He was the proprietor of a farm and grist mill just east of the city line. On a steamship voyage a fellow passenger, Mark Twain, referred to him as the “poet lariat” of Little Neck and later in his book Innocents Abroad added, “A simple minded, honest, old-fashioned farmer with a strange proclivity for writing rhymes.”
Walk towards Northern Boulevard. As you draw even with the white barn, find a stone marked “Mary Buhrman.”
2. “Mary Buhrman” Stone
Between this stone and the barn, you can see the grave of Benjamin Lowerre. In 1827 Benjamin P. Lowerre purchased a general store and grist mill from the descendants of the Foster family, who had settled Alley Creek in 1637. Mary Lowerre married William C. Buhrman, whose name in later years was associated with the store and mill. The Alley was important because before a road (later Northern Boulevard) crossed the Creek, the only north shore route east and west went through the Alley just south of Alley Pond.
Walk towards Northern Boulevard and stop at the small stone cross marked “Caroline Bissell.”
4. “Caroline Bissell” cross
Between this cross and the barn, you can see the stone marked “Edwin Lawrence.” This family owned burial plots on both the east and west sides of the early churchyard. They lived in a large house on the north side of Northern Boulevard and owned the section that was later developed as Marathon Park.
Bennem Plot Gate: On the Northern Boulevard side of the cross are several plots marked off by low railings. The first plot belongs to Albert S. Griffin, and early Douglaston resident who traveled abroad and has been credited with importing seedlings of a variety of exotic trees such as the weeping beech at the Douglaston train station.
The next plot is John Bennem, who with his son Charles were for many years the Little Neck Village blacksmiths who operated a shop on Little Neck Parkway just south of where the Chase Bank now stands.
The third plot is Henry Benjamin Cornell, a life long member of Zion. He served as Vestryman and sometimes Warden from 1887 through 1942.
The last railed plot is the Schenk-Hicks families. Benjamin Schenk was a partner of Schenk and Van Nostrand, who operated the village General Store in a white wooden frame building on the current site of the Chase Bank. Mrs. Schenk’s father, John Hicks, owned several farms in the area between where the Long Island Expressway and the Grand Central Parkway currently lie.
Now walk back towards the church, cross the driveway, and find the stone bench marked “Cornell.”
4. “Cornell” Bench
On the Northern Boulevard side of this bench is the plot of Alfred P. Wright, who was a wheelwright in Little Neck. The plot also contains a particularly poignant stone to a daughter who died at age twelve, as well as an unusual cast-iron grave marker.
Closer to Northern Boulevard is the Hutton family plot, featuring another Victorian cast iron marker. Behind the bench is one of the Hicks Family plots. They were descendants of one of the early Douglaston families.
Walk towards Northern Boulevard, and find a large stone marked “Bryce Rea.”
5. “Bryce Rea”
This is a more recently developed section of the churchyard, containing the family plots of many of the local merchants: John Gabler, Bryce Rea, Doyle Shaffer, and others. From this vantage point on a clear day the skyscrapers of Manhattan can be seen to the west.
Walk north to the cluster of cedar trees.
6. Cedar trees
In the midst of the cedar trees is the marker of John Gibson, who served as Sexton of Zion Church for many years. To the left is the marker of Charles Hallberg, who along with Donald Kirkpatrick moved their families to Douglaston when Queens College was founded in 1938. They were two of the original twenty-eight professors of the college. The Kirkpatrick stone lies flush with the ground near the tall pine tree.
The portion from here to 244th Street is where plots are currently available to members of Zion Parish.
Walk north towards 44th Avenue. Find the two large boulders with the tree growing between.
7. Matinecoc Reburial Site
On Sunday November 1, 1931, the reinterment of some thirty of the bodily remains of the Matinecoc tribe took place at Zion churchyard. In that year, the city of New York decided to widen Northern Boulevard into the four-lane road it is today, even though their plan involved the thoughtless destruction of a Matinecock burial ground at the site of what is now Queens County Savings Bank. Despite the impassioned opposition of Chief Wild Pigeon and others, the city pushed forward with its plan, desecrating the original graves and reburying the remains in the Zion churchyard. The site is marked by a great rock split in two with a tree growing in between. A simple inscription is carved upon the stone: “Here rest the last of the Matinecoc.” In 2018, the memorial was restored by Aidan Decker as part of an Eagle Scout project. In November of that year, Chief Harry Wallace led a homecoming burial ceremony for the remains of Matinecock ancestors that had been returned from the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Florida. Though the site was and is a reminder of a shameful moment in our community’s past, it is also a place where people seeking transformation and to restore ties of mutual care have gathered to build a new future.
Walk towards the church. By the drive find a marker “Mott.”
This is the second oldest portion of the churchyard. Members of the Mott family lived in Douglaston since before the Revolutionary War. To the left is a marker of the Van Nostrand family, also long time residents of this area. Many of the earliest markers have been worn smooth by over 165 years of wind, rain, and snow.
Updated 3 October 2019 by Carl Adair