New York City’s reputation for growth and emphasis on new, bigger, and better has often resulted in the loss of historical architecture. Similarly, the passage of time has obscured significant aspects of the city’s diverse social history. The city’s growth occasionally serves the opposite function, however: it unearths previously forgotten and hidden parts of the city’s past. Such is the case with the African Burial Ground.
In 1991, the federal government was in the process of excavating a site just north of City Hall in preparation for a new administrative building. As the workers removed layer after layer of accumulated soil, they began exposing colonial-era graves. Research revealed that the location was part of the African Burial Ground, a site where free and enslaved African Americans in New York City buried their dead in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The discovery created quite a controversy. Some graves had been damaged by construction efforts before workers realized that the site contained human remains, and modern-day descendants of slaves believed that building on top of the cemetery was disrespectful.
Eventually, a compromise was reached. Archaeologists carefully removed 419 sets of human remains from the site, and those remains were sent to scholars at Howard University for study. (It’s believed that 15,000 or more people were originally buried throughout the full cemetery, which extended beyond the current building site.) After scholars learned as much as possible about what those remains tell us about African-American life in the New York colony, each set of remains was carefully placed in individual coffins, handmade by craftsmen from Ghana, and then interred on the grounds of the new African Burial Ground National Monument. The federal office building was eventually completed next door, and the first floor of that building now houses the monument’s Visitors’ Center.
The Visitors’ Center is very well done, educating visitors about a number of important and interesting themes. I’m not always a fan of Visitors’ Center introductory films, but the one here is excellent. It’s not very long (only 15-20 minutes), and definitely worth taking the time to see it.
One of the first things that grabs your attention is this life-sized burial scene, complete with audio. You can even sit on one of the benches located nearby, absorbing the solemnity of the burial of one slave family’s husband and father and another family’s infant child.
As you explore further, you will learn more about the challenges that slaves faced in colonial New York City, including details about their working and living conditions. You will encounter a few slaves (as well as free African Americans) that we know more about because of historical records, and you will be able to read for yourself examples of the laws that were passed to maintain English colonists’ power over their African slaves.
Artifacts such as this contemporary newspaper advertisement for runaway slaves were sobering.
If you are interested in archaeology, you will find the parts of the exhibition that focus on the exhumed graves fascinating. The exhibit includes photos of each of the graves – here are just a few of them.
Additionally, the exhibit demonstrates how much scholars were able to learn about the health, working conditions, etc. of each buried person by providing a lot more information about one individual, Burial No. 101.
The outdoor monument is a peaceful, architecturally striking place. Its design is filled with multiple layers of meaning, from the mounds of earth covered in green grass, where the excavated remains were reburied, to African symbols and their translations, to various commemorations of the dead. Here are a few of the photos I took of the monument to give you a sense of what the space is like.
Located only a short distance from City Hall, the African Burial Ground National Monument is easily reached by public transportation. A number of subway stations are located within walking distance of the monument and visitor’s center: take the 1, 2, 3, J, Z, A, or C trains to their respective Chambers Street stations; the 4, 5, or 6 to the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station; the E to the World Trade Center station; the N or R trains to City Hall; or the 2 or 3 to Park Place. The memorial’s visitor center is located on the first floor of the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway. The memorial is located behind the building and is accessible from Duane Street. The African Burial Ground National Monument and Visitors’ Center is free.