Goldman Proposes to Expand Historic African Cemetery with Museum and Education Center
A late 1700s map illustrates the full, six-acre extent of the Negroes Burying Ground near the location of present-day Chambers Street.
Newly elected Congressman Dan Goldman is sponsoring legislation to expand the African Burial Ground National Monument, the Lower Manhattan site that holds the remains of an estimated 15,000 African-Americans from the Colonial era (both free and enslaved), with a new museum and education center.
“The African Burial Ground is one of the most historically important monuments to Black history in New York,” Mr. Goldman said at a Monday announcement at the site, near Duane Street and Broadway. “It is a stark and sobering reminder of the fact that New York and America was built by Black Americans, and to a great extent on the backs of Black Americans. Black history is American history, and now, more than ever, as Black history comes under attack from extreme conservatives who would like to whitewash the history of this nation, we must work to uplift that history. That’s why I am introducing the African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Educational Center Act, so that we can establish a museum and education center here at this site, and pass on the lessons and memory of everything it symbolizes.”
Under Mr. Goldman’s plan, the African Burial Ground Museum would be managed by the National Park Service in consultation with a new African Burial Ground Advisory Council, a panel that would be established by the legislation.
The site that Mr. Goldman hopes to expand is the oldest and largest known historic burial ground in North America for free and enslaved Africans. It includes DNA samples from the remarkably well-preserved human remains that have enabled researchers to trace the home roots in Africa of individuals buried at the site, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, and became a National Historic Landmark in 1993. It was designated as a National Monument in 2006.
Mr. Goldman envisions a museum that will host complementary exhibits and foster collaboration with other institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities, historical societies and educational institutions, creating a stronger network of groups focused on strengthening the historic understanding of slavery.
Enslaved Africans first arrived in what was then called New Amsterdam in the 1620s. By 1741, they comprised nearly one-fourth of New York’s population, and the City’s headcount of black men and women in bondage was second only to that of Charleston, South Carolina. In that year, a rash of fires was ascribed to an alleged plot among slaves and impoverished white residents. For good measure, British colonial administrators also charged that both the cabal and the fires were inspired by secret allegiance to the Vatican. By the time the hysteria had subsided, dozens of supposed conspirators had been burned at the stake or hanged.
The site now known as the African Burial Ground was first recorded as a place of interment for enslaved and free black people in the early 1700s. The location appears to have been chosen because it was at the outskirts of the settled area of Lower Manhattan. Decades later, it became a favorite target of grave-robbing physicians, for whom research cadavers were in short supply. By the late 1700s, the urban core had begun to expand northward, and the small valley that marked the site was filled in, burying the cemetery. When the newly raised and leveled land was commercially developed soon after, the fact that a graveyard for New York’s earliest black residents had once been located there was forgotten for centuries.
In the 1990s, as construction workers began excavating the foundation for a new federal office building at 290 Broadway (between Reade and Chambers Streets), they came upon dozens, then hundreds of intact burial sites—many of them containing artifacts related to African tribal religions and burial practices.
The new federal office building was redesigned to leave space for a memorial, and to rebury the hundreds of human remains that had been disinterred during construction. Three of these skeletons were analyzed by sculptor Frank Bender, who used forensic facial reconstruction techniques to create a hauntingly beautiful bronze, “Unearthed,” which faithfully renders the appearance of an elderly women, a middle-aged woman, and a young man, all of whom came to rest in the African Burial Ground.
“I held the eldest woman’s skull in my hands and felt that she had endured the most,” the artist later recalled. “The younger woman with the bandana had been shot in the back. The young man in the background, the youngest and tallest of the three, is rising for the hope-filled future. The three hands joined together in the earth conveys the idea that ‘we are all one in death.’”
In 2021, Community Board 1 endorsed an earlier version of this proposal, sponsored by Congressman Jerry Nadler. In a resolution enacted at its April meeting, CB1 said that it “supports the African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Education Center Act, which would establish a museum and education center at the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan that would serve as a sister site to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.”
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