by Ernest Barteldes
Over a decade ago I was walking up Whitehall Street when I saw a group of African-American men in top hats getting ready to take some carriages over to the African Burial Ground on Broadway for a re-burial ceremony. I had heard about the discovery of a forgotten cemetery that was rediscovered during preparations for a new federal building, but the events following 9-11 had obscured that memory. Luckily I had a (film) camera with me and I took a few snapshots of the preparations and made a mental note to visit the monument – but somehow I completely forgot about it and even though I had walked or ridden my bike next to the location countless times, I had never actually made a stop there.
As I walked into the visitor center at 290 Broadway, I had to go through airport-like security (including the removal of shoes and belt) and began my visit with a 20-minute video presentation that gave viewers a general background of the site and the efforts to preserve the site for future generations and the compromise to carry on with the construction of a new federal building with a section to remember the dead buried there with the respect they deserve.
The rest of the exhibit showed a brief history of slavery in America, including its roots in the African continent, where North Africans would kidnap and capture citizens of other regions and sell them to Europeans, the history of the beginning and end of the practice in New York and of course a re-creation of a funeral for a man and a child felled by disease. Around the exhibit it is mentioned (with 3-D effect) that most of the funerals were done under strict regulations imposed by slave-owners – services were conducted at twilight but before dusk and no more than 12 Africans could be present because whites feared Africans congregating in large numbers.
There were also video presentations about the history of the location and a place where visitors could record their own impressions for posterity. I sat and recorded a brief message of my own apologizing for not having been there before.
On the outside around the corner stands the actual granite monument, where a water fountain flows around the markings of some of the graves describing the bodies discovered there. The inscription reads “For all those who were lost, For all those who were stolen, For all those who were left behind, For all those who are not forgotten.” A staircase inside the monument representing the “door to no return” that Western Africans were forced through into their path to slavery leads to four large grass-covered mounds where the reinterred remains were laid to rest after being removed for study upon discovery.
It is hard to describe my feelings about being there. Inside the visitors’ center I chatted with several folks who had come from far away to see it with their own eyes. I spoke with an African-American woman from Upstate New York who told me it was an awesome experience to see this, because she is aware that her roots come from somewhere around that very site. I was glad to be there but also felt grieved that so many buried on that site (plus countless bodies lost under landfill and construction) ended their lives with so much pain and suffering – the thought was just unbearable.