New York, NY – The National Park Service (NPS), in partnership with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the African Burial Ground Monument Foundation, the Office of the Mayor, City of New York, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, today dedicated a new memorial at the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan. The permanent memorial, constructed to honor the memories of the free and enslaved Africans buried at the original seven-acre site in the 17th and 18th centuries, was opened to the public for the first time following a dedication ceremony.
The burial ground was rediscovered in 1991 when construction began on a federal office building in Lower Manhattan. As the largest and oldest African cemetery excavated in North America, the burial ground is one of the most significant archaeological finds in U.S. history. The burial ground stretched more than five city blocks during the 17th and 18th centuries, and it is estimated that over 15,000 enslaved and free Africans were buried there.
Before taking part in a wreath laying ceremony at the entry to site’s ancestral chamber, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne delivered the keynote address. “Today, in dedicating this monument, we declare once again that this place is sacred. We pay tribute to the lives of those buried here. We celebrate their humanity, a humanity that tragically was not recognized in their lifetime,” said Secretary Kempthorne. “We often think of history in terms of famous leaders and great battlegrounds. But what we remember here today – the people we commemorate – is truly our history.”
In 1991, the remains of 419 African men, women and children were unearthed by archaeologists at the site that is now the African Burial Ground National Monument. Since then, the U.S. General Services Administration has played a pivotal role in the extensive mitigation response to the unearthed remains and conception and completion of NPS’ interpretive center in the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway and the exterior memorial.
“We are honored to be here today with our partners to dedicate a national monument that tells the full story of the African Burial Ground,” said Administrator Lurita Doan of the U.S. General Services Administration. “The project fulfills GSA’s pledge to better inform future generations about the history of this great nation.”
Construction on the memorial, which was designed by Rodney Léon, president and co-founder of Aarris Architects, began in 2005. Mr. Léon was one of five designers selected from 61 applicants who answered an initial call for proposals in 1998. In June, 2004 NPS convened the five finalist designers for a series of public forums in New York City’s five boroughs. The finalists presented their designs for public comment and each designer revised their designs based on public feedback from these presentations. Throughout September 2004, the public was able to see the completed designs and comment on them at six locations in New York City’s five boroughs, as well as online. The GSA and the NPS gathered public feedback on the finalist memorial designs through the African Burial Ground Web site (www.africanburialground.gov), special exhibits and public forums.
“The memorial represents a unique opportunity and responsibility for all of us,” said Rodney Léon. “No longer will one walk past this site or through Lower Manhattan and not be provided the opportunity to know, understand, and acknowledge and respect the significance of this site.”
The first Africans arrived in New Amsterdam about 1625. Along with European merchants, traders, sailors and farmers, these enslaved workers helped to establish the early colony. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Africans were an important part of the city’s population, reaching a peak of over twenty percent. The African Burial Ground tells the story of the contributions of enslaved and free Africans in the life and building of the early Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which would later become New York City. The history of the site reveals how New York played an early and critical role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is the newest national monument in New York City, joining the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island, and Castle Clinton.
“There is no other national monument in our country that addresses either slavery or the early African-American experience, and we are honored to be home of this tribute to those who lived and died here,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It is our hope that those who visit this monument will be reminded of how far we have come, and may the memory of those buried here be forever honored.”
The opening of the new memorial is the result of an ongoing partnership between the public and private sectors dating to the rediscovery of the site. An advisory group, the African Burial Ground Federal Steering Committee, provided recommendations to assist in planning for the site. The dedication ceremony is the inaugural co-sponsorship event of the African Burial Ground Monument Foundation, the park’s official non-profit partner, and the National Park Service. In addition, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer hosted the pre-dedication breakfast for speakers and special guests.
“This is a critical milestone in the evolution of the African Burial Ground project, but more a beginning than a culmination,” said Howard Dodson, secretary of the African Burial Ground Monument Foundation. “The monument and the interpretive center that will support it are important new resources for commemorating and telling the stories of our enslaved colonial African ancestors.”
The African Burial Ground was designated by President Bush as a national monument in February 2006, making it the 390th national park site to be managed by the National Park Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The African Burial Ground National Monument memorial will be open to the public every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm except New Year’s, Christmas and Thanksgiving. The visitor center, located in 290 Broadway, will be open Monday to Friday 9:00 am to 5:00 pm except for federal holidays.
“The African Burial Ground National Monument is a significant addition to the National Park System,” said Dennis Reidenbach, Northeast regional director of the National Park Service. “We must tell the stories of all Americans and the burial ground is a place where we reach into the past and have an opportunity to touch the future by telling the stories of the Africans who worked to make New York City and the nation strong.”
About the African Burial Ground National Monument (www.nps.gov/afbg)
One of the most significant archaeological finds in U.S. history, the African Burial Ground is a 17th and 18th century cemetery that was re-discovered in 1991 when construction began on a federal office building in Lower Manhattan. In 1993, the site was preserved as a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior and was later designated a National Monument by Presidential Proclamation on February 27, 2006. The National Monument is part of an original seven-acre site containing the remains of approximately 15,000 people, making it the largest and oldest African cemetery excavated in North America.
About the African Burial Ground Monument Foundation
The African Burial Ground Monument Foundation was established in 2006 by Dr. James Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus, The Riverside Church, Edward Lewis, Chairman and Founder of Essence Communications Inc. and Howard Dodson, Director, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, with the objectives of raising funds and generating global outreach for America’s newest National Monument.