African Burial Ground Commemoration: A Unique Opportunity for Artists and Community

By D, Stephen | Black Masks, November 15, 1998 | Go to article overview

African Burial Ground Commemoration: A Unique Opportunity for Artists and Community


D, Stephen, Black Masks


African Burial Ground Commemoration: A Unique Opportunity for Artists and Community

The African Burial Ground was cemetery in lower Manhatan used by New York City s enslaved and free Africans from at least 1712 until 1827 when slavery was outlawed in New York. It was located in a desolate area then outside the city limits. No one knows exactly how large the original burial ground was, but historians speculate that it may have covered five city blocks, including the current City Hall Park. There is also well-founded speculation that it may have held the remains of as many as 20,000 people. Relatively little is known about these people and even less is known about their funeral practices. What is certain, however, is that the burial ground was covered over and effectively forgotten as Manhattan began its northerly growth. It remained essentially hidden from history until 1991 when it was rediscovered as ground was being broken for a new federal building to be built by the U.S. General Service Administration (GSA) near City Hall. Ultimately the remains of 427 people, mostly children, as well as numerous artifacts, were uncovered.

The rediscovery of The Burial Ground initially touched off a firestorm of public and private controversy, which echoed from houses of worship to the House of Representatives. Some people were angered by the disturbance of any burial ground. On the other hand, the government wanted to quell the controversy and maintain its construction schedule, which, at one point, had been halted by community agitation. Still others, upset that the rediscovered remains and literally hundreds of artifacts had been moved to Lehman College, wanted the project placed under the scientific care of people of African descent. Eventually the remains were relocated to Howard University, where they are currently being studied by a team of anthropologists and historians under the direction of biological anthropologist Dr Michael L. Blakey. The team's study of the remains has already yielded critical information about how these men, women and children lived and died. This study tentatively scheduled for completion in 1999 -- promises to increase the breadth of knowledge about 18th century New York City history. GSA Deputy Administrator Thurman M. Davis, Sr. states, "GSA is honored to be a partner in the significant research, education and interpretation being conducted under the auspices of the African Burial Ground Project."

In 1992, a Federal Steering Committee, comprised of historians, attorneys, community activists, anthropologists, artists, politicians and others, was appointed. Peggy King-Jorde, then Special Advisor to Mayor Dinkins on the African Burial Ground, became the committee's executive director during its two-year tenure. The committee's mandate was to seek and distill community input and make recommendations to Congress about methods to appropriately memorialize the site. The work of this committee, in conjunction with increasing community concern and activism, media publicity and action by Congress, helped change the direction of the undertaking that had begun as a construction project. The originally planned construction of a pavilion adjacent to the federal building was abandoned so that the remaining part of the burial ground could be preserved.

Currently, The African Burial Ground has been designated a national and a New York City landmark. Funds have been allocated by Congress to administer two national design competitions -- one for an Interpretive Center in the lobby of the federal building, and another for an adjacent Exterior Memorial on the site where the pavilion was originally to be built. The competitions, which closed in December 1997 and June 1998 respectively, are the result of a combination of community activism, politicians activated by their constituencies, and the GSA's ability to expand the scope of its traditional role for the African Burial Ground Project.

While the GSA's expertise is in managing space and supplies to help Federal employees accomplish their missions, it also manages a fine arts program. …

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