African Burial Ground National Monument

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 39 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The Visitor Center focuses quite a bit on the efforts at balancing the human desire to learn from the skeletons and artifacts in the burial ground, with the human desire to treat those remains respectfully and not have them end up on dusty museum shelves for eternity.  That’s a hard balance, and it’s valuable to have a glimpse into the  conversations that led to the compromises they made. 

African Burial Ground National MonumentThe African Burial Ground is a small monument overshadowed by the government buildings around Foley Square.  As they were digging for a new federal building in 1991 they discovered bodies, and from there re-discovered a forgotten cemetery used by the city’s African American population in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

African Burial Ground National MonumentToday a corner of what used to be the cemetery is a small green open space with a black granite monument, standing in for a headstone.  There aren’t any markers, of course, and if it weren’t for the signs and a series of low humps of earth, you’d probably just think it was a pocket park.  It’s not the whole extent of the cemetery, as this city is sufficiently about commerce and building that it won’t let the past fully forestall progress, even when that past includes the earthly remains of slaves.

Mosaic of Skeletons, African Burial Ground
Photomosaic of the remains examined and then re-interred at the African Burial Ground

You can visit the national monument in just a few minutes.  However, the as is the norm with the National Park Service, the visitor center’s exhibits are simple, thoughtful, and earnest, and merit spending some time and contemplation.

Comparative mortality ages show almost no African Americans lived to a ripe old age.

It looks at what we know about the people laid to rest at the Burial Ground — nothing in terms of written records, but quite a bit based on archaeological evidence.  It also talks a bit about contemporary black residents of New York about whom we do know something, and paints an unflinching picture of the hardships they faced.

 

The narrative of the visitor center speaks of “ancestors” (the remains of the people they dug up) and “descendants” (the modern activists who argued for humane treatment of those remains.  It forges a compelling but unproveable link– we don’t know the names of those who were buried there, and there probably isn’t enough DNA in bones that old to connect them with certainty to any living person.  Without a doubt, though, they were New Yorkers, and it seems very right that there is a space in the heart of the civic center of the city to note and remember the role that they played.

African Burial Ground National Monument Museum The African Burial Ground is definitely not entertaining.  But it is important.  Every New Yorker and everyone with an interest in the city and its history should go and pay their respects.

For Reference:

Address 290 Broadway (Visitor Center) and corner of Duane and Elk Streets (National Monument), Manhattan
Website nps.gov/afbg
Cost  Free