A Year After Reburial of Slaves, Debate Over Memorial
When more than 400 slaves were reburied last year at a site unearthed by construction workers in lower Manhattan, the occasion was marked by singing, dancing — and promises for an elaborate memorial.
Today, the site is marked by only one small sign.
While a large-scale memorial is in the works, those involved with the burial ground say the government needs to do more to make it a prominent landmark among New York’s myriad cultural and historical attractions.
“Everybody needs to know this is not just part of African American history, it is a part of New York City history and American history,” said Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is planning an anniversary celebration of the internment.
Closed in 1794 and long forgotten as construction landfill eventually buried it 20 feet underground, the 5-acre spot was the final resting place for tens of thousands of slaves and free Blacks. It was unearthed during construction of a federal office tower in 1991.
The site today surrounded by City Hall and other municipal buildings — is to have a $2 million memorial by fall 2005. Plans for a $2 million interpretive center are under consideration as well.
But community activists have complained about the slow pace and selection process.
The federal General Services Administration (GSA), which manages the site with the assistance of the National Park Service, will choose a winning design from five finalists — culled from more than 60 submissions — by November after a series of public hearings.
Many in the Black community did not want a memorial that covered too much of the burial site or required digging because that “would further disturb our ancestors,” said Ayo Harrington, chairwoman of Friends of the African Burial Ground, an informal advocacy group. All five designs cover the site to some degree.
She also is disappointed that the public will not be selecting the winning design for the memorial.
Eileen Long-Chelales, a regional administrator for GSA, said the agency will consider public comment along with recommendations from a board that included architects and historians. The finalists already have incorporated ideas into their designs from community feedback, she said.
“The communication between the descendant community, GSA and the Park Service has never been better,” Long-Chelales said. “Obviously there were some issues, but the communication has improved dramatically.”
When the burial ground was discovered, it was community pressure that prompted the government to abandon work on the federal office tower and begin examining the remains when the burial ground was discovered. A final scientific report on the remains, due out next fall, is expected to provide insight into the little-known lives and deaths of Blacks in the northern United States.
Officials from South Africa gathered at the site to receive soil to take back to Freedom Park in their country and schoolchildren linked hands to form a ring around the site.
“Most people have forgotten or didn’t know that this huge area was in fact a burial ground,” Dodson said at the ceremony. “Our agenda today is to make the public aware of the enormity of this.”
Harrington said her group would like to see a museum of African history built near the site along with a DNA bank — collected from the remains and stored by Howard University — that could be used by descendants to determine their origins.
“It is a very spiritual type of thing,” she said. “If we could find one person who could one day go to that DNA bank, and it was determined that that person was a descendent, although we all are, it would just be something that folks would celebrate around the entire globe.”
— Associated Press
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