No public Twitter messages. Follow me @ChristieNic


quote

African Burial Ground Becomes National Monument

By Christie Nicholson
Published in The Columbia Journalist on February 28, 2006

Fifteen years after it was accidentally discovered in Lower Manhattan, an African burial ground containing the remains of nearly 20,000 slaves has become a national monument. President George W. Bush signed the proclamation establishing the designation yesterday.

- – -
Fifteen years after it was accidentally discovered in Lower Manhattan, an African burial ground containing the remains of nearly 20,000 slaves has become a national monument. President George W. Bush signed the proclamation establishing the designation yesterday.

“The living must honor the dead,” Interior Secretary Gail Norton said at the dedication ceremony. “Yes, New York was a slave state. The African slaves were taken to the land of freedom, and it was here where they lost their freedom.”

The national monument designation gives the federal government permanent control over the designated portion of the burial ground, nearly a one-acre grass plot. Federal funds are expected to go to the construction of an interpretive center, where students can learn about slavery and the African presence in New York, and a memorial structure built on the monument site.

The General Services Administration, a federal agency, first unearthed the cemetery when workers began construction of a skyscraper on the corner of Broadway and Elk Streets.

The discovery of the bones, 24 feet below New York City, came as a shocking reminder for people who might not have associates slavery with New York’s history, but instead thought of it as a condition of the South.

Norton and the acting administrator of GSA, David Bibb, and announced the designation of the graveyard monument from the lobby of the new GSA building, which ended up being built adjacent to the memorial site. Several current and former New York public officials attended today’s announcement. They ranged from U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) to David Dinkins, who was New York’s mayor when the burial ground was discovered.

The colonial-era cemetery ranges over a seven-acre plot that reaches south from Duane Street to Chambers Street, and east from Broadway to Center Street. In what is now being called a “mortuary apartheid,” the slaves were buried outside the city boundaries of the time. The bodies were in coffins, stacked without markers or names. Eventually the site was paved over and forgotten.

For several years in the mid-1990s, the burial-ground project languished. But when Stephen A. Perry took the helm as administrator of the GSA in 2001, he initiated the plans for a memorial structure and the monument designation.

The burial ground has already inspired an exhibit, “Slavery in New York,” at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. According to the exhibit, in the mid-18 th century, 25 percent of New York’s population was enslaved.

“The greatest atrocities of our age have been against African slaves,” said Dr. Delois Blakely, who is known as the Queen Mother in Harlem. She was asked to assign names to each of the bodies found at the site. “It behooves us to begin the healing process,” she said. “President Bush has granted that – and I believe it is a divine order.”

After the burial ground was discovered more than 400 skeletal bodies were excavated in 1991, and taken to Howard University in Washington for scientific and archeological study. Two years later, the area, now known to have housed the second-largest slave market in America, was designated a National Historical Landmark by the National Parks Service.

Michael J. Blakely, a scholar at the College of William and Mary, led the study of the bodies. The study revealed detailed information about the slaves and their lives under Dutch rule, when New York was known as New Amsterdam.

Bones were found in unusual positions: a man with arms crossed over his chest and a mother with her infant lying in the crook of her arm. Fractured vertebrae and skeletal lesions showed evidence of the back-breaking work slaves did in constructing such notable sites as Trinity Church and the wall from which Wall Street got its name.

After scholars completed their study, the bodies were returned to their original resting places, each in a hand-carved mahogany casket shipped from Ghana in 1993.

A complex heart-shaped design made from nails decorated some of the lids of the originals found in the burial grounds. African historians claim the design is an Ashanti symbol which means, “Return to the past to build the future.”

These slaves have returned as our teachers,” Bibb said, during the designation ceremony. “Now all who visit this monument will understand the contributions of African Americans to the building of this city, of this country.”

This entry was written by Christie, posted on February 28, 2006 at 12:30 pm, filed under Home, Print. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Have your say

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. Subscribe to these comments.

:

: