“You may bury me in the bottom of Manhattan. I will rise. My people will get me. I will rise out of the huts of history’s shame.”
—Maya Angelo, re-interment ceremony, African Burial Ground, October 4, 2003
When you enter the main gallery of the African Burial Ground National Monument Visitor Center, at 290 Broadway, you become part of a double funeral. A child-size wooden coffin rests atop a matching adult one. The figure of an older African woman and a young one, comforting a child, stand at the coffins’ heads, and two men gather at the feet. Dim lighting simulates early evening, just before sundown. Birdsong and the tinkling of rhythmic African instruments mix with the sound of shovel against dirt. You move closer to the group, stand in silence and begin to feel their sadness. Suddenly, the older woman speaks, “Are you here today?” she asks. Twice more she proclaims the question, with the increasing volume and intensity of a gospel preacher. Those present respond to the call with a chorus of louder and louder affirmations. The recording then stops, and you are left to learn more.
For over 200 years, the graves of enslaved and free Africans lay silent, undisturbed and unaware of the transformation above them. As New Amsterdam grew into New York City, they were forgotten under twenty-five feet of landfill, and their stories remained untold.
Then in 1991, construction workers digging the foundation for the Ted Weiss Federal Building unearthed human burials. Intact remains of 419 men, women and children of African descent were discovered at the site and removed for study. Thousands more were left untouched.
Barred from the public cemetery after 1697, Africans were required to bury their dead on the outskirts of the developing city. Maps drawn in 1755 labeled a 6.6 acre area as the “Negros Burial Ground,” beginning at the southern end of what is now City Hall Park. An estimated 15,000-20,000 Africans and their descendants were buried in the cemetery until the city closed it in 1794.
“Few people realize that New York was one of the most enslaved cities,” says Cyrus Forman, a National Park Service Ranger, as he leads a tour. “This center gives an honest version of our history. New York was built a lot by African slave labor.” A wall display in the visitor center reports that nearly 7,500 ships carrying slaves from Africa entered America through New York from 1700-1744. By the Revolutionary War, African slaves made up nearly one fourth of the city’s population.
Exhibits throughout the center speak of the cruelties and harsh conditions endured by New York slaves. “They were an abused population, disposable, worked to death,” explains Forman. “Over 40 per cent of the remains unearthed at the site were children, who were valued as labor by slave owners. Many died of poor nutrition, hard work and disease.”
Other exhibits highlight the unique culture and traditions which endured years of slavery and emerged to shape the larger American culture. Contributions of Africans in early New York are featured, and faces of present day African Americans—in every aspect of the city’s life—are displayed and celebrated. The story of the struggle and ultimate success in preserving the burial ground is presented and speaks to the site’s historical and emotional significance to New York and the rest of the country.
Behind the visitor center stands the African Burial Ground National Monument at the corner of Duane Street and African Burial Ground Way (Elk Street). After intense study at Howard University’s Cobb Laboratory, the remains of the 419 Africans were reburied in seven grassy burial mounds, lining one side of the memorial.
A 25 foot granite monument, open at both ends, invites visitors to enter and reflect on what they’ve learned. Water surrounds its base, symbolizing the ocean lapping against ships’ hulls as they transported millions of slaves across the Middle Passage. Exit onto a map of the Atlantic area, the “Circle of Diaspora,” where Africans were forcibly transported away from their homes and ancestral origins. Walk its perimeter wall and read its symbols … humanity, strength, endurance, unity in diversity.
Finally, guests can read the engraving on the monument’s wall before they leave:
For all those who were lost
For all those who were stolen
For all those who were left behind
For all those who were not forgotten
The African Burial Ground Visitor Center is inside the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The outdoor memorial is open 7 days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. There is no admission fee. For more information, call 212-238-4367 or visit nps.gov/afbg.)
—Twylla Alexander is a writer who lives in Lower Manhattan. A lover of early American history, she uncovers fascinating stories right outside her door. More of her writing can be found at her blog, New York City Reflections.