Volume 16 • Issue 19 | October 07 - 13, 2003

Rest in Peace

Remains from African Burial Ground return Downtown

By Josh Rogers

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Tears ran down Beverly Alston’s face on Saturday after she prayed near a coffin holding the remains of one of the 419 African Americans discovered at Elk and Duane Sts. in 1991. She said she felt “happy and connected” that her ancestors were being returned to the ground.

“It’s like the beginning of a journey giving us strength to carry on,” Alston said while standing on the African Burial Ground. The remains of Colonial-era slaves were reinterred last weekend on Oct. 4, representing the culmination of a divisive 12-year fight that started during the construction of the federal building at 290 Broadway. After protests in 1991, the U.S. General Services Administration agreed to preserve part of the burial ground area, which covered five blocks in Lower Manhattan and was the final resting place for up to 20,000, according to estimates by burial ground officials.

The emotions during two days of ceremonies in Lower Manhattan were mixed between celebration for the return and anger over centuries of slavery and racism in America. The remains of a man, woman, boy and girl were shipped from New Jersey to Pier 11 near Wall St. on Oct. 3 and then brought to the burial ground by horse-drawn carriages going up Broadway’s “Canyon of Heroes.” (It was the first procession up the historic, ticker-tape parade route since before the 2001 terrorist attack.) At a ceremony on the pier, some speakers focused on the anger –- one referred to white people as “Euro-peons.”

Councilmember Charles Barron, like several speakers, received the loudest applause when he asked for monetary reparations to compensate himself and other blacks for their ancestors’ suffering during slavery.

“You want to honor our ancestors,” Barron asked. “Educate our children — get some money in the hood,” he said, adding that money should also be used for housing and to get people jobs to get off of welfare. “You want to honor us, pay us our reparations.”

The dean of New York’s Congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem, seemed to be responding to speakers like Barron. “It was a mean-spirited thing that happened to us, but we have to move forward,” Rangel said. He felt the day marked the first time blacks could speak with pride about their heritage, just like other immigrants — who were not forced to come here. “Today is the first day we can go forward to say we are somebody and nobody can tell us any story of where they came from without listening to us first.”

There was more unity in the audience. On the north side of Wall St., there was a class of fifth graders, almost entirely black, from a public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Directly opposite them on the south side, was a class of eighth graders, almost entirely white, from a Greenwich Village private school. Students in both classes said they were excited to see African dancing and art and happy to see the remains returned.

“They showed the culture of black folks,” said Alexandra Lamont, a fifth grader from P.S./I.S. 308 in Bed-Stuy. She admired the African designs on the coffins. “They carved the pictures on the boxes and put [the remains] back where they found them.”

Her classmate, Jade Robinson, said, “they’re burying African-Americans that were killed and murdered.”

On the other side of the street, Rebecca, an eighth grader at the Village Community School, said, “I think it’s really amazing to see the culture.” Hannah, also a student at the private school, said: “It was a good celebration since they didn’t have a proper burial.” Teachers at V.C.S. allowed students to be interviewed on the condition that they be identified by their first names only.

The burial ground, which was used in the 18th century, was near City Hall in what was then considered the outskirts of the city. New York’s blacks were not freed from slavery until July 4, 1827, so all of the people buried were believed to have been slaves.

Michael Blakey, the professor who oversaw the study of the remains while he was at Howard University, said a look at the stresses to the bones shows that many of the people were brutally overworked before they died. He said a comparison of the people buried a few blocks away in the Trinity Church cemetery, showed that the white parishioners were eight times more likely to live to an old age than the Africans discovered at Elk and Duane. Many of the Africans came from present-day Ghana or nearby and brought with them advanced technologies, such as how to inoculate people from small pox, Blakey said.

A final report on the remains will be released later this year and a memorial at the site is also being planned.

Blakey called on the General Services Administration to recognize the harm they did by trying to build over the burial ground in 1991. “One day hopefully we’ll have a proper apology,” said Blakey.

Stephen Perry, the G.S.A.’s administrator, stopped short of an apology when he spoke to the crowd Oct. 3. “There is no way that all that conflict and controversy can be explained away,” he said. “We are moving forward to settle this in a collaborative and cooperative way.” He said the previous conflicts ultimately led to unity among the various groups.

But in reality, the perspectives on the return varied:

Howard Dodson, executive director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, noted that the burial ground where he said 20,00 people were buried was near the W.T.C. site where close to 3,000 people were killed. “New York has a historic ground zero -– one that has been here for over 200 years and which was paved over with buildings.”

Mayor Mike Bloomberg, standing near Wall St. said the people being reburied “did not enjoy the freedom or receive the respect that was theirs by right….Once African Americans of our city were bought and sold on this very spot. It’s fitting that this is where we are receiving them. As mayor of New York, I welcome them home. May they rest in peace, the peace they so richly deserve.”

Heru Ankh’Ra Semahj Se Ptah, who led an African prayer on Saturday, said long after the end of slavery, racism still keeps blacks down. “After awhile they removed the chains but they still retain a chokehold on our minds,” he said.

Ron Meekins returned to the burial ground, the day they were reinterred. He said he was working a few blocks away in 1991 at the city’s Human Resources Administration. Meekins, who now works as an Afrocentric psychotherapist, remembered the discovery as a powerful moment. He called the return “a repatriation of the souls of our ancestors” and added, “I guess it’s somewhat laudatory to the government that they understand the importance of preserving this area.”

Honey Ellsberry, who filled out a descendants’ card to be buried with the remains, said she was bothered that the bones were in small boxes rather than being spread out. “It’s too bad you are still cramped like you were on a slave ship,” Ellsberry said she wrote on the card.

Councilmember Barron also said that much of the city was built by blacks. “We built the wall that is Wall St. to protect the colonizers from Native Americans,” he said. “We should have built a little hole to let them through.”

But C. Virginia Fields, Manhattan’s borough president, said the day called for celebration. “Let us rejoice that we give them something that they did not enjoy in life and that is dignity and respect.”



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