Saturday, July 23, 2011

African Burial Ground: Broadway and Duane St

"Unearthed" by Frank Bender
The African Burial Ground was discovered in lower Manhattan in 1991, when during excavation work for a new federal office building at 290 Broadway, workers discovered the skeletal remains of the first of 419 men, women and children (41% were children, indicative of the hardships endured by child slaves). During the 17th and 18th centuries, free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6 acre burial ground outside the then-current boundaries of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (which later became New York under British rule). Over the centuries, the unmarked cemetery was covered over by development and landfill (although I am skeptical that no other developers found skeletal remains previously--seems more likely to be numerous cover ups to me). The General Services Administration (GSA) works with the National Parks Service (NPS) to support and administer the African Burial Ground. 

The skeletons and the artifacts (like buttons, beads and jewelry found with the remains) were excavated and sent down to Howard University in D.C. for study.  Afterwards, following a 6 day memorial/celebration from D.C. to NYC, they were returned in crypts buried in seven burial mounds at the African Burial Ground just to the east of the monument (see right).   The monument is striking with its towering black marble and circular walled walkway etched with numerous symbols from the African diaspora (where Africans were dispersed around the world as slaves) like the Sankofa symbol (heart-shaped and shown on the main part of the monument) which loosely means: go back to the past to improve the future. 

I first visited the new visitors center (opened in 2010) and saw the artifacts, displays that illustrated the re-internment celebrations, and the depictions of the hard life of freed and enslaved Africans in NYC.  Did you know that the children of freed Africans were born into slavery?  Or did you know that NY state had more slaves than any other state other than South Carolina?  I had generally thought of the North as populated by abolitionists, but I suppose that was in the latter part of the 1800s, and it seems to me that history books seem to completely omit this earlier American history. The visitor's center regularly shows a 20 minute film that tells of the discovery of the African Burial Ground and the incredible hardships that were endured by millions of Africans and African Americans (see photo at top of a burial reenactment of a funeral of a child and adult slaves that is in the visitor's center and also in the film).  

I next went next door to the GSA federal building, going through security telling them I wanted to look at the art in the lobby.  There I saw moving commissioned art (see above left for an example) and displays that further described the history of the African Burial Ground along with models of the crypts and examples of the African boxes used for the re-internment (see right). I thought it was a pity that these displays were basically left in the corner with no one really appreciating them (why weren't they added to the visitor's center?).

I rounded out my visit with one final look at the monument and 7 mounds marking where the crypts were buried, and I thought to myself that this area marks the existence and lives of the first of millions of African Americans in this country.  Although not similar to Ellis Island in that those ancestors immigrated into this country freely, the African Burial Ground is rightly preserved and cared for by the same NPS and its rangers.

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