New York City’s African Burial Ground

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.

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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.

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Artifacts such as this contemporary newspaper advertisement for runaway slaves were sobering.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

History and Public Art at Grant’s Tomb

There is often an interesting tension between opposites in New York City: historic vs. modern, classical music vs. hip hop, street art vs. vandalism … This dynamic is part of what makes the city exciting and guarantees that you’ll never be bored if you’re looking for something to do. A visit to Grant’s Tomb, located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on Manhattan’s upper west side, near Columbia University, gives visitors an unexpected opportunity to explore two very different ways of thinking about public spaces.

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Grant’s Tomb is the resting place for the 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, and his wife Julia Dent Grant. It celebrates not only his leadership as president but also his leadership as the commander of the Union army during the American Civil War. Many people don’t realize that, after Grant’s presidency was over, he lived the rest of his life in New York. After Grant’s death from throat cancer in 1885, people from around the world donated money to build a memorial in New York City. Grant’s Tomb was ultimately dedicated on April 27, 1897. Today, Grant’s Tomb is official known as the General Grant National Memorial and is part of the National Park Service. The Memorial’s website states that the Tomb is the largest mausoleum in the United States.

The outside of the Tomb is imposing, with tall iconic columns. One of my favorite things on the exterior is this quote, clearly a reference to the American Civil War: “Let us have peace.”

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Inside, the architectural details are stunning, particularly the domed ceiling and accompanying murals.

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You can find the Grants’ sarcophagi in the mausoleum’s lower level, although they are visible from above. The lower level also contains a series of bronze busts of several other Civil War generals, created as part of the Works Progress Administration arts program in the 1930s.

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The formality of Grant’s Tomb is contrasted with the public art that surrounds it. By the 1970s, Grant’s Tomb was in poor condition because of vandalism and graffiti. CITYarts, a nonprofit organization, worked with artist Pedro Silva and architect Phillip Danzig to create a series of seventeen concrete benches, covered in mosaic tiles, that frame the Tomb on three sides. National Park Service and community leaders hoped that engaging the community in the project would reduce vandalism, and the project did have that effect. Titled “The Rolling Bench,” the project brought together artists and members of the surrounding community, including many children. Some of the designs in the project relate to Yellowstone National Park, which became a national park during Grant’s presidency, but there are also other themes. The benches are delightful, with whimsical shapes and intricate details.

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As I researched to find out more about the CITYarts project, I discovered that the benches were almost removed in the late 1990s. As Grant’s Tomb approached its 100th anniversary, the National Park Service had decided that the benches did not match the solemn tone of the memorial. Officials determined that the benches would be moved to a different location, but the public outcry in opposition to the plan persuaded the National Park Service to abandon its efforts. Thus, you can still see the amazing mosaic benches at their original location.

Here are a few more photos showing some of the mosaic details. (There’s plenty more to see when you visit though – don’t forget, there are 17 benches in all!)

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How do you get to Grant’s Tomb? The Memorial is located in Riverside Park, at the northern end. If traveling by subway, take the 1 train to the 125th Street Station. You can also reach the Memorial by bus – take the M4, M5, or M104.

Federal Hall National Memorial

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Many visitors to New York City do not know that the city was the first capitol of the United States. New York City’s City Hall was located at 26 Wall Street in the 1700s, and the building served as the host for a number of important events during and after the American Revolution, including the Stamp Act Congress, the passage of the Northwest Ordinance, the drafting of the Bill of Rights for the U.S. Constitution, and George Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the United States. The city hall operated as the seat of the federal government until the capitol was briefly moved to Philadelphia in 1790, and then city offices moved back into the building.

That building no longer exists, but visitors can now tour Federal Hall National Memorial, which is located on the same site. The current building was built in 1842 and operated as a customs house for a number of years before becoming a depository for the U.S. Sub-Treasury (the Sub-Treasury system was replaced by the Federal Reserve System in 1920). Today, Federal Hall is a museum, free to visitors.

Federal hall has beautiful architectural details inside and out. Here are a couple of perspectives of the main hall, with its imposing columns and domed ceiling.

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Although the original building is gone, you can still view the stone that George Washington was standing on when he took the oath of office as president for the first time.

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There is also this replica of the desk that George Washington used as president when the national capitol was located on the site. I learned that the original desk is now located at the current City Hall building, in the Governor’s Room.

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Federal Hall contains multiple permanent exhibits that address the city and nation’s early history and the history of the current building. There is also a temporary exhibit that starts in the main hall and continues to the basement level. The current temporary exhibit celebrates the diverse cultural, social, and political history of New York City’s neighborhood of Harlem. If you wish to see this excellent exhibit, you should visit Federal Hall before the exhibit closes on April 15, 2016.

Federal Hall’s location means that visitors can also see the New York Stock Exchange building. Members of the general public cannot tour the inside of the Stock Exchange, but you can still get a great picture of the outside of the building.

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How can you get to Federal Hall National Memorial? The museum is located in lower Manhattan near numerous other tourist attractions. There are many subway stations within walking distance, but here are the closest ones. You can take the 2, 3, 4, or 5 trains to Wall Street, the J or Z trains to the Broad Street station, the 1 or R trains to Rector Street, or the A or C trains to Fulton Street.