About this listing
Colonial-era burial ground for African-Americans
Borough : Manhattan
Neighborhood : Civic Center
Place Matters Profile
On the eve of the American Revolution, New York City was second only to Charleston, South Carolina as an urban center of slavery. In 1991, during excavations for a new federal building in Manhattanâs Financial District, a colonial-era burial ground containing the remains of an estimated 15-20,000 Africans was discovered.Today, a memorial commemorates those interred in the African Burial Ground, and a visitor center addresses the history of African-descended people in early New York as well as the struggle to preserve the burial ground itself.
The African Burial Ground Visitor Center, located at 290 Broadway, has been the most visited of all New York Cityâs National Park Service sites since its opening in February 2010. The memorialâknown as the African Burial Ground National Monumentâis located just around the corner, at the intersection of Duane and Elk streets. Though the bones of those buried at the African Burial Ground were first...
On the eve of the American Revolution, New York City was second only to Charleston, South Carolina as an urban center of slavery. In 1991, during excavations for a new federal building in Manhattan’s Financial District, a colonial-era burial ground containing the remains of an estimated 15-20,000 Africans was discovered.Today, a memorial commemorates those interred in the African Burial Ground, and a visitor center addresses the history of African-descended people in early New York as well as the struggle to preserve the burial ground itself.
The African Burial Ground Visitor Center, located at 290 Broadway, has been the most visited of all New York City’s National Park Service sites since its opening in February 2010. The memorial—known as the African Burial Ground National Monument—is located just around the corner, at the intersection of Duane and Elk streets. Though the bones of those buried at the African Burial Ground were first discovered by the General Services Administration (GSA) in 1991, it took a great deal of time and effort before both the memorial and the visitor center came to fruition.
The GSA was able to identify what it had discovered thanks to a 1755 map of New York, where the location was marked as the “Negros Burial Ground.” The GSA then hired a team of archaeologists, but elected to pursue both excavation and construction, thus destroying some remains in the process. After Fox News broke the story of what was occurring at the site, an outcry arose from black New Yorkers. Construction was halted due to protests and political interventions.
In 1993, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and an archaeological team from Howard University undertook the project of studying the 419 exhumed remains. The project lasted until 2003, the same year in which the GSA struck an agreement with the National Park Service, creating the Development and Public Investment of the Exterior Memorial and the Interpretive Center. On October 4, 2003, a re-internment ceremony involving eight cities, 10,000 participants, and lasting for five days occurred, beginning in Washington, D.C., and ending in New York City.
The federal Ted Weiss building, where the visitor center and part of the memorial are contained, was completed in 2005. (Six artworks commissioned as an extension of the memorial line the lobby. Images and more information are available here: http://www.africanburialground.gov/ABG_Artwork.htm ) Artist Rodney Leon beat out 61 competitors in the memorial design competition. An official opening and dedication was held on October 7, 2007, and was attended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Congressman Charles B. Rangel, among others.
The visitor center opened in 2010. It is designed as a self-guided space, though rangers are available to answer questions. It seeks to educate visitors on four topics: the archaeological studies and findings made by Howard University’s team at the burial ground; the lives of slaves in the 18th century; modern-day African-American and African culture; and lastly, the campaign that led to the eventual creation of the African Burial Ground memorial and visitor center.
Each section of the exhibit takes a different approach to education. In the archaeological section, visitors can use interactive touch screens to consider relevant questions, such as, “What can bones tell us?” and receive detailed answers. Replicas of artifacts found buried with the bodies (all original artifacts have been re-buried) are on display. Four hundred and nineteen skeletons had been uncovered before excavation was stopped, and a large, lighted panel displays photographs of the bones. Each burial is marked by a number, with the age and sex of the buried listed. The exhibit notes that few of the slaves interred here lived past age 45; nearly half of those excavated had not lived past the age of 12.
The historical section, which focuses on the way slaves lived in the 18th century, takes a more personalized, rather than scientific approach. Descriptions of work, newspaper ads calling for the return of runaways, and the listing of laws that restricted the movement of slaves are all present, conveying the daily realities and hardships that the enslaved faced. The stories of individuals are also displayed on panels, giving visitors a fuller picture of those buried at the African Burial Ground. In the center of the exhibit are life-sized models gathered around coffins, meant to evoke what a funeral held at the African Burial Ground may have been like. A dramatization of a funeral is also shown in a short film, which the center plays every half hour.
The third exhibit in the visitor’s center concentrates on both present-day Africa and New York, discussing how modern African-American New Yorkers carry on the traditions of their ancestors, and displaying artifacts from countries such as Nigeria and Mali.
The fourth and final exhibit launches into a timeline of how the African Burial Ground visitor’s center and monument came to be, from 1989 to present. Scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings about the protest are available for reading, and a video of the re-internment cemetery plays on a loop. In a sub-section titled “Why our heritage matters,” visitors are also able to select and watch interviews with different people who were involved in the fight to have the burial ground recognized. They are also able to leave their thoughts about the exhibit via recording on a webcam or writing on index cards.
The memorial is located on a quiet block, just around the corner from the visitor’s center. The space, which is open to the public, is dominated by Rodney Leon’s black granite slab, on which is inscribed, “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”. To the right of the slab rest the seven mounds where the excavated remains and artifacts were re-interred. To the left, partially formed by Leon’s slab, is the libation chamber, a reflective space meant to invoke the feeling of a ship’s hold. Just beyond is the Circle of the Diaspora, a map which depicts the forced removal of Africans from their homeland to varying parts of the world.
A sign asks that visitors respect the memorial space, and that they do not eat, run, or talk on cell phones on the ground. When designing the space, Leon intended it to be a “living memorial”—a place to always remember those buried here.
—By Jacqueline Colognesi, February 2011
Panels, African Burial Ground Visitor’s Center and Memorial. January 29, 2011.
Edward Rothstein. “A Burial Ground and Its Dead are Given Life.” New York Times, February 25, 2010.
Sherrill D. Wilson, Ph.D. “The Rites of Ancestral Return”. Newsletter of the African Burial Ground Project. Fall/Winter 2003.