A Year after Reburial of Slaves, Debate over Memorial

Black Issues in Higher Education, October 21, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Year after Reburial of Slaves, Debate over Memorial


NEW YORK

When more than 400 slaves were reburied last year at a site unearthed by construction workers in lower Manhattan, the occasion was marked by singing, dancing--and promises for an elaborate memorial.

Today, the site is marked by only one small sign.

While a large-scale memorial is in the works, those involved with the burial ground say the government needs 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 an anniversary celebration of the internment.

Closed in 1794 and long forgotten as construction landfill eventually buried it 20 feet underground, the 5-acre spot was the final resting place for tens of thousands of slaves and free Blacks. It was unearthed during construction of a federal office tower in 1991.

The site today surrounded by City Hall and other municipal buildings--is to have a $2 million memorial by fall 2005. Plans for a $2 million interpretive center are under consideration as well.

But community activists have complained about the slow pace and selection process.

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.

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," said Ayo Harrington, chairwoman of Friends of the African Burial Ground, an informal advocacy group. All five designs cover the site to some degree. …

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