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11:07 PM / Tuesday May 17, 2022

4 Mar 2010

Visitor center opens at NY’s African Burial Ground

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March 4, 2010 Category: Week In Review Posted by:

By Verena Dobnik

Associated Press

NEW YORK–About 15,000 enslaved and free Africans were once unceremoniously buried under what is today Manhattan , and forgotten.

 

On Saturday, a new visitor center was to open near the rediscovered cemetery from the 17th and 18th centuries, to celebrate the ethnic Africans who had toiled, many unpaid, to help make New York the nation’s commercial capital.

 

The Center is open, 9AM-5PM, Monday through Friday, except for Federal holidays and is located inside the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway.. While admission is free; strict security screening is required to enter; all persons must pass through airport-style security. For general information, please call (212) 637-2019.

 

“It’s shocking, the number of people today who are still unaware that this history exists in New York,” said Tara Morrison, superintendent of the African Burial Ground National Memorial, located just a short walk from Wall Street.

 

Some of the remains were exhumed after 1991 and reburied on a third of an acre surrounded by high-rises amid bustling lower Manhattan.

 

The visitor center on Broadway offers interactive exhibits showing how the African labor force contributed to the life of Dutch-colonized New Amsterdam in the 1600s, and later New York, governed by the English until the American Revolution. At the time, about 10,000 blacks worked in New York.

 

They had come off ships from Africa, landing in Perth Amboy, N.J., a busy duty-free port for the importation of slaves , men and women practicing Christian, Muslim and traditional African faiths.

 

They worked on docks and made roads or did farm and domestic work. The skilled artisans and craftsmen were associated with shipping, construction and various trades.

 

Some remained enslaved, while others gained some degree of freedom and could raise their families, though none had the full rights of the colonists.

 

But all were among those building a new nation.

 

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When these early New Yorkers died, they were wrapped in shrouds and buried on more than 6 acres of land beyond the then official northern boundary of the city, at today’s Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. Only non-Africans could be buried in the city proper.

 

After the 1741 slave insurrection, many were executed, hanged on vague charges of arson and conspiracy.

 

At the entrance to the visitor center is a burial scene with life-size figures, “to remind people that they are visiting a sacred site,” Morrison said.

 

The forgotten burial place was discovered in 1991, when construction began on the foundation of a federal office building. Remains were found 20 feet underground.

 

The building was redesigned, and in 1993 the Burial Ground became a National Historic Landmark.

 

President George W. Bush signed a proclamation in 2006 designating it a National Monument as the “most important historic urban archaeological project undertaken in the United States.” A memorial was dedicated the following year.

 

Opening to the public Saturday afternoon, the 25,000-square-foot visitor space has four exhibit areas, a theater and a gift shop.

 

The African Burial Ground is part of the National Park Service, and there’s no entrance fee.

 

It took almost two decades to officially preserve the site, after an emotionally charged battle pitting scholars, activists and officials against those arguing that business in the densely built-up neighborhood would be disrupted during excavation.

 

Areas of the cemetery under buildings remain untouched.

 

The visitor center will also examine the preservation efforts, said Morrison, adding that they reflect “the importance of citizens taking action.”

 

She said she’s seen adults at the Burial Ground who look “very angry, because they’re learning this history for the first time. Now they’ll know when they walk down Broadway: This is our complex, collective heritage.”

 

New York abolished slavery in 1827.

 

The visitor center will also examine the preservation efforts, said Morrison, adding that they reflect “the importance of citizens taking action.”

 

She said she’s seen adults at the Burial Ground who look “very angry, because they’re learning this history for the first time. Now they’ll know when they walk down Broadway: This is our complex, collective heritage.”

 

New York abolished slavery in 1827.

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