Burial Ground Seeks Its Place Among NYC Landmarks

Wed October 20, 2004 - Northeast Edition
Chaka Ferguson

NEW YORK (AP) The human remains of more than 400 slaves have been reburied, a memorial is about to be selected and an interpretive center is in the works for the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, a colonial-era cemetery that was once the final resting place for slaves and free blacks.

Yet as the first anniversary of the re-internment of those remains approaches, those involved with the burial ground say government agencies that manage the site need 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 the anniversary celebration.

Closed in 1794 and long forgotten as construction landfill eventually buried it 20 ft. underground, the five-acre spot was the final resting place for tens of thousands of people of African descent. Today, more than a decade after the burial ground was unearthed by construction workers, it is marked by only one small sign.

Part of the plan to increase awareness of the site — today surrounded by City Hall and other municipal buildings — will be the construction of a $2-million memorial by fall 2005. Plans for a $2-million interpretive center are under consideration as well.

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.

As with the initial re-internment last year — an elaborate ceremony that included singing, dancing and speeches — there has been some debate among community activists over the selection process for the memorial.

Ayo Harrington, chairwoman of Friends of the African Burial Ground, an informal advocacy group, said communication problems between the government and the public continue.

For example, she said, 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.” 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.

Park Service spokeswoman Tara Morrison acknowledged there were some disagreements with community activists over how the memorial should be built and chosen, but said the government is responding to public concerns.

“There are varying opinions on what type of memorial should be on the site,” she said. “Some individuals feel that nothing should be placed. And there are others who are interested in putting something special on the place.”

Eileen Long-Shelales, a regional administrator of GSA, said the agency will select a memorial based on public comment and 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-Shelales said. “Obviously there were some issues, but the communication has improved dramatically.”

When the burial ground was rediscovered during construction of a federal office tower in 1991, community pressure prompted the government to abandon work and begin examining the remains. 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.

To increase the burial ground’s status, Dodson wants it to be designated a United Nations World Heritage site, like the Statue of Liberty. The Park Service, which nominates landmarks for such consideration, currently has no sites under review.

On Friday, Oct. 1, as 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, Dobson said, “Most people have forgotten or didn’t know that this huge area was in fact a burial ground. Our agenda today is to make the public aware of the enormity of this.”

Dobson envisions the site as a focal point of African unity.

In addition, 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.”