Written by Karen Georgia A. Thompson
New York City has millions of visitors annually. They flock to Times Square and Broadway. They want to see Central Park and watch Broadway shows. They come to the Big Apple to shop in places like Macy’s at Herald Square and Saks Fifth Avenue. They want to see St. Patrick’s Cathedral and view the galleries of the museums of upper Manhattan. Rockefeller Center, the Central Park Zoo, Madison Square Garden, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the Empire State Building, the Bronx Zoo, the New York Public Library are the places that are easily found. They line the maps, they have good signs, and one can ask the locals and be pointed in the right direction – well, most of the locals.
New York is more than Manhattan Island, and Manhattan Island is more than the many landmarks that are placed on the maps for tourists to acquire from the airport on arrival or download from the many apps and websites. There are many histories that are hidden in this city where men, women and children sleep in shelters and on the streets. New York is about what is seen, but more so about that which is rendered invisible by people and institutions.
The quest for the New York City slave memorial heralded in 2015 by the New York Daily News yielded a nondescript marker on the corner of Pearl and Wall Streets. The City of New York, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department and Mayor De Blasio can all take pride in having erected the sign. The sign was commemorated by the Mayor and the City of New York can point to this sign, as a sign that the slave history of New York City was acknowledged. So what if the sign is there and people walk by it but never stop to read it? What is the importance of this sign, if the history it reveals is never acknowledged? Is the act of putting up the sign enough?
My dismay and concern for signs in New York (and other cities too), for the ways in which importance and relevance are coded into the acknowledgements and lack thereof went beyond Pearl and Water Streets. The issues at Pearl and Water were far greater than one sign that marked the history of slavery in New York City beginning in the 16th century. The sign at Pearl and Water was a symbol of every homeless person who is ignored in plain sight as millions walk by. The sign was a symbol of the many individuals with mental health challenges riding the subways and walking the streets, ignored as they talk to their demons and point to our own insanity in ignoring theirs. Why create housing or provide mental health care when we can ignore them even as they walk among us? Why create signs that people can read? Why acknowledge the atrocities of slavery or any other event in ways that speak to repentance and ask for forgiveness?
On the way south to Bowling Green we discovered the National Museum of the American Indian, noted for another visit to New York City. The museum is housed in the old U.S. Customs House, the irony was not lost on me. Here too was another people whose lives intersected with the early Dutch Settlers of Manhattan Island. They too lost in their encounter, long forgotten as residents and slaves on this island, their lives a foot note being erased from the history books, even as Manhattan real estate continues to be among the highest nationally and internationally. The history of the buying and selling of Manhattan Island is still a matter of “interpretation”, the narrative of that trade rooted in early seventeenth century European land transactions and deeds that did not translate for the indigenous people the Dutch encountered. The price of Manhattan real estate cannot be ignored when looking at what gets prime real estate and what occupies space.
My sister and I walked north on Broadway from Bowling Green. Walking Manhattan on that Saturday was far easier than trying to negotiate which train was running on which line for us to get to our next destination. The new Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center Plaza loomed in the distance over the newly built but never dedicated Oculus atop the Port Authority Transportation Hub, visible to the west as we exited Zuccoti Park and its memories of the Occupy Wall Street protestors. The protestors are now gone, but their presence in the park was a now silent reminder of the great disparities that are a part of Wall Street – and the financial machine that perpetuates the wealth gap globally.
The Freedom Tower was built for $3.8 billion, took 8 years to construct and opened in fall 2014. The tower sits on approximately one acre of land that is a part of the 16 acre complex that will eventually house a total of five buildings. The PATH station with its white marble floors cost $4 billion and inspired the New York Daily News headline “They Lost Their Marbles.” A very photogenic pair, these two come in at a whopping cost for naming freedom and acknowledging their importance in the life of the city, regardless of the criticism the PATH station received. The World Trade Center site will be very costly when all the buildings and plans are completed. These locations are not hard to find, we were not looking for them, but there they were vying for our attention, with the tourists milling around. The signed locales of New York continue to speak.
There is nothing hidden here, except a story of choices and excess in a city where poverty and mis-education are the modern-day sleight of hand that have replaced Three Card Monty purveyors on the streets of Manhattan. These tricksters no longer stand on street corners with board, dice and shells. These now occupy board rooms and peddle real estate, robbing the poor to line the pockets of the rich, choosing to participate in the re-writing of history for financial gain.
Walking a mere 0.6 miles from the corner of Church and Vesey streets brings a change in landscape. The tourists disappear as the distance increases. The buildings change. Gone is the glass and height that is much of the Financial District. The buildings are a little shorter, more traditional some would say, but they too have a history and a story to tell. We were heading for Duane and Elk Streets.
On the north-west corner of the street is the memorial for the African Burial Ground National Memorial. The memorial occupies .34 acres of land. The monument cost $5 million. This is in stark contrast to the buildings and monuments that are in Manhattan. The land for the burial ground was not given freely, but came in the aftermath of protests after the burial ground (not cemetery) was discovered. In addition to the monument that marks the burial ground there is a visitor center located in the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway. The building is built on the burial ground (aka “the excavation site). We discovered this upon acquiring the brochure outside the monument which is a part of the National Park Service (NPS).
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
These words and the sankofa symbols are on the front of the monument that marks the site of the memorial, at the exit of the Ancestral Libation Chamber. The burial ground was discovered in 1991 while the excavation was being done for the federal office building. According to the brochure, over a two-year period, about an acre of the 6.6 acre burial ground was excavated and 419 remains were removed from the ground. This site was the only burial ground from Africans and African descendants in early Manhattan. 15,000 are estimated to have been buried on the 6.6 acres.
The .34 acre site was not easily set aside for this sacred ground. Local activists protested after the remains were discovered, demanding that the construction on the property be halted. The Ted Weiss Federal Building, the New York State Supreme Courthouse, the United States District Court, the Immigration and Naturalization Services offices are a few of the many buildings that now sit on the burial ground which is a National Monument and National Historical Landmark. (See map). The list of city and federal buildings that currently sit on the cemetery are too long to list.
In life as in death, the dignity of the Ancestors was expendable. The sacred ground was overturned and their bodies removed. The sacred ground that is now marked with signage that honors the memorial, was not as honored as the buildings in Manhattan went up to create what is the iconic skyline. All the land is this area is sacred. The land on which the new federal buildings sit, these are all sacred lands, places where those who have gone before were laid to rest in unmarked graves because the laws prohibited any celebration of their lives or mourning of their departures.
The cemetery was hidden for years. Hidden from those who prohibited the very burying of the African bodies that they overworked and did not pay. These bodies that were bought and sold at auctions and traded on Wall Street between Pearl and Water Streets were laid to rest on the outskirts of a city that overlooked their very existence. This cemetery sits under the many office and legal buildings of one of the largest cities in the United States, the spirits of the Ancestors watching over the un-excavated graves of thousands that are hidden in plain sight in the middle of Lower Manhattan. What do we say of this sacred ground that is virtually unknown, of these unmarked burial mounds?
Visiting the memorial and reading about the struggle to even have the land set aside for the site left me with a full range of emotions, even as I acknowledged the sacred space and time. This was sacred ground. This was a place where the dead were laid to rest, in a time when laws made African funerals “essentially illegal,” according to the NPS brochure.
“No accounts survive for the people who buried friends and loved ones here, but we know quite a bit about the cemetery’s history. A 1697 British law banned African burials in New York City’s public cemetery, so the African burial ground lay north of the city limits near a ravine. In 1745 the city expanded northward, and a new defensive wall – the “palisade” – bisected the sacred burial ground.
The burial ground was closed in the 1790s and the land divided into lots for sale. Over the next two centuries, New York City’s growth obscured the graves. The burial ground was cover with layer upon layer of buildings and fill material, which protected the human remains until rediscovery in 1991.” (National Park Service Brochure).
I was angry that the history of Africans in these Americas continues to be one of invisibility where worth continues to be dictated by the majority. I was angry that the masses who made pilgrimage to Wall Street and the signs and symbols of money and wealth in the U.S. were under-concerned with the men, women and children whose blood, sweat and tears are the foundation on which the infrastructure and wealth of the United States sits. They found no reason to visit this sacred site and pay homage to those who created what they came to visit. I was angry that this history of Manhattan is not widely known. Angry that the erasers are busy removing these lives from history books. I was sad for the same reasons, frustrated and even bitter when thinking about the contemporary context of racism and the ways in which these same issues play out in this 21st century. We are still not free.
In large part due to activism by the African-American community, which lobbied the US Congress on this project, in October 1992 Congress passed and President George H. W. Bush signed a law to redesign it in order to stop construction of the pavilion portion of the site (where the remains had been found) and to appropriate $3 million for a memorial in that area. The federal building project was redesigned to preserve part of the archeological site for this purpose. The southern portion of the building, slated to be built on the parcel by Duane and Elk Streets, was eliminated to provide adequate room for a memorial.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_Burial_Ground_National_Monument)
On 4 October 2003, the Ancestors were reinterred at the memorial. Maya Angelou wrote a poem and the Mayor was present when the monument was dedicated 5 October 2007. The journey of the Ancestors from the African continent to Lower Manhattan, included a sojourn in Washington, D.C. at Howard University where the bones were documented and tested, and the final reports produced. The bodies returned to Manhattan to be laid to rest once again – in peace – amidst the traffic of this modern-day New York City.
On the train heading further uptown, we found this poem from Maya Angelou. New York calls for yet a new awaking to the realities of history – hidden in plain sight, reminders that history does repeat itself. The Ancestors continue to speak.
More pictures of the African Burial Ground National Monument