Volume 20 Issue 22 | October 12 - 18 2007

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

Visitors to the new monument to the African Burial Ground at Duane and Elk Sts. Wednesday.

Monument opens, 16 years after remains discovery

By Skye H. McFarlane

Behind the police checkpoints and security barriers of the Foley Square government complex, a gospel choir sang out Friday morning before a brand new patch of green, its sod still wrinkled at the edges. In its center stood the reason for celebration — a striking stone monument that honors the thousands of colonial-era blacks who were laid to rest in what is now known as the African Burial Ground.

While singers, dancers and celebrity speakers celebrated the monument, many also used the occasion to condemn the discrimination and slavery in New York City’s past. Others took time to acknowledge the ongoing 16-year struggle to give the burial ground its historical due.

“One of the ways of oppressing a people is to not acknowledge their existence,” said U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who represents Lower Manhattan. Nadler said that the discovery of the burial ground in 1991 opened his own eyes to New York’s part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Nadler’s remarks echoed those of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said that the construction workers in 1991 “uncovered more than just a burial ground. They brought to light one of the most uncomfortable and tragic truths in our city’s history.”

Those truths — and 419 sets of remains — were uncovered by workers digging the foundation to what is now the federal building at 290 Broadway. Because the land had been covered with buildings for nearly two centuries, few members of the public knew that it had once been part of a larger, seven-acre burial ground used by the black residents of Manhattan, both free and enslaved.

No one knows the exact beginnings of the burial ground, which runs from roughly Chambers St. and Broadway over to Pearl St. and Cardinal Hayes Pl. The site may have come into use as early as the 1640s, when the Dutch granted nearby land to a group of free black farmers. Historians agree that the burial ground came into wide use in 1697 when Trinity Church took over the municipal graveyard and decreed that blacks would no longer be allowed to bury their dead there. As many as 15,000 blacks may have been interred in the marshy lowlands.

Photo courtesy of the Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture

Marchers walked from Battery Park to the monument last Friday night, the day it opened to the public.

After a century of heavy use, the cemetery was divvied up in 1795 and built into a residential neighborhood. By 1991, those historians who knew of the burial ground’s existence widely assumed that it had been destroyed by the foundations of subsequent developments. However, a layer of landfill — 25 feet deep in some places — had been poured over the site to smooth out the land at the end of the 18th century, inadvertently preserving the graves.

Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, called the landfill an “indignity,” but Dr. James Forbes, senior minister at Riverside Church, said that it was the work of guardian angels who “summoned [the black ancestors] from oblivion.”

“Too soon they were forgotten, as well as their contribution,” Forbes said.

In addition to noting the role that black labor and farming expertise played in building early New York, many speakers praised the contributions of the politicians and community members who protested in 1991 to force the federal government to stop building a plaza and pavilion on the site. Eventually, the government agreed. The remains were studied at Howard University before being re-interred on the site in 2003. In 2006, the burial ground was declared a National Monument and turned over to the National Parks Service.

Rodney Leon, who designed the monument, was one of several speakers to praise Lieutenant Governor David Paterson. Paterson has been working on the burial ground project since its beginning, when he was a state senator. Leon said he was glad that people, especially schoolchildren, would no longer walk past the site at Duane and Elk Sts. without knowing what had happened there.

Paterson began his remarks by saying that he could die in peace, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “We are here today to honor a raisin in the sun,” he said, referencing the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred.” Paterson said that his next dream would be to get an African memorial in Washington, D.C. Other speakers pledged to work for a permanent museum and more educational funding for the burial ground.

“We are ourselves made honored and honorable by honoring the men and women who came before us,” said poet Maya Angelou, whose remarks drew a standing ovation.

By 1 p.m., as the politicians and other dignitaries were laying wreaths on the re-interment mounds, a line had formed around the block on Broadway with members of the public waiting to see the monument.

By Monday morning, a meditative vibe had overtaken the site, as two dozen visitors walked through the monument. Some paused inside the 25-foot high stone burial chamber, which is inscribed with a Sankofa — a heart-shaped West African symbol that represents learning from one’s ancestors. Others strolled down into the sunken, circular “libation chamber” to read descriptions of selected burials, like “Burial 99: Child five years to ten years.” Still others read pamphlets about the site, handed out by a park ranger.

Few people spoke, except for one black woman in a pink sweater, who circled the site again and again, repeating, “Amazing, just amazing. They were here all this time. Just amazing.”

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