Every year there are several fun events in October in NYC. There’s Fall for Dance, the New Yorker Festival, and Open House New York. I’ve taken part in the first two and rtb takes part in all three. Sometimes there’s overlap and rtb has to make hard choices. This year TNYFest and OHNY were separate weekends and for the first time I considered participating. rtb likes architecture, interesting spaces, and the people who make up NYC. So do I but the idea of running from place to place all during the one weekend when all these places grant access leaves me exhausted. I looked at the site earlier in the week and the first thing that jumped out at me was Maple Grove Cemetery, which is very near my house. So I decided to make a reservation on Sunday for that tour. Then I added another site to round out the day. So why not make it a full weekend of tours? So I choose two sites for Saturday. Saturday night I was exhausted. And I was even more exhausted on Sunday night. I don’t know how rtb manages to visit so many more sites all over city and not collapse.
From the el I noticed a lot of sukkahs on many terraces of the new apartment buildings in Williamsburg. I was surprised. I’m used to seeing sukkahs on the terraces and fire escapes of old buildings but I always thought of the new buildings as being filled with hipsters. Either many of the Hasid are in the new buildings or there are more Orthodox or religious hipsters than I thought.
My first tour was the African Burial Ground National Monument. You didn’t need a reservation for this site and there were supposed to be tours every hour. When I arrived the security guard said the tours were happening behind the building. I’ve walked by the Ted Weiss Federal Building many times but had no idea that this site was directly behind it. I knew the African Burial Ground was in the area but I never ran across it and wasn’t sure where to look for it (of course, I could have looked it up and looked at a map but that would have been too easy). I came onto the site and there was a group of (what I thought were) HS students looking on and taking notes as a man stood over the graves and was chanting, yelling, praying.
The site consists of the 24-foot-high Ancestral Libation Chamber, which represents the soaring African spirit and the distance below ground where the remains were found. It is made of Verde Fontaine green granite from Africa. The Sankofa symbol (from West Africa) on the outside means “learn from the past to prepare for the future.”
The other side has a map of the original “Negros Buriel Ground” and where the African Burial Ground fits in it.
The Chamber also represents a ship – there is water on both sides. Inside of the Chamber is a place for reflection and you’re meant to feel like you are inside a ship. Through the west door you can see the seven mounds containing 420 coffins. Four hundred nineteen of the coffins contain the remains of those found at the site. One coffin contains poems, letters, and other things. Next to the mounds are seven trees, which are symbolic but I forgot their name. The remains are buried with heads towards the west so that they are facing east, just like they were in the original cemetery, so that they could be facing Africa. The Chamber is open on both sides so that their souls can go back to Africa. The opening on the east side of the Chamber leads to the Circle of the Diaspora. The symbols carved into the wall represent different ways of thinking. The symbols originated in areas throughout the Diaspora. The floor of the Circle is a map of the world. Written into the floor are descriptions of some of the those buried.
When I was alone inside the Chamber, before the short tour and I found out it was meant to represent the hull of a ship, it felt very spiritual to me. I thought of my African ancestors who traveled the Middle Passage.
I asked the park ranger where the 12pm tour would start and he had no idea. It was about 11:30am so I decided to go around to the front and see the museum inside the building. It was there I found out the students were from Howard University (man, they make college students very young nowadays). When I returned to the site at about 12:05, a tour was in progress but the park ranger didn’t seem to know much more than I could find out from either the museum or the pamphlet found at the site’s entrance. The museum gave a brief history of the slave trade in the US, especially in NYC. There were displays of some of the items found in the graves – a beaded waist adornment that women wore under their clothing, brass buttons that were probably part of woolen pants (most people were buried in shrouds), cufflinks under a woman’s shoulder that were probably a cherished heirloom, and a silver pendant around a child’s neck.
There was an empty barrel that could be pushed up an incline, which was very heavy and not even filled. Imagine having to push these barrels all day long. Displays showed the typical day of several enslaved people, who were identified by name and what family they worked for. There were also displays of free Africans and their contributions to life in colonial New York.
The big diorama in the center showed a typical burial of a man and child. From the 1690s to 1794, an estimated 15,000 enslaved and free African people were buried in the “Negros Buriel Ground.” The original cemetery covered 6.6 acres outside the city limits of New Amsterdam (later New York). A 1697 law prohibited Africans from being buried in any of the city’s public cemeteries. During British rule, as the city grew, a wall bisected the sacred burial ground. Colonial laws made African funerals essentially illegal. Enslaved Africans could not gather in groups of more than 12 and they could not hold burials after sunset. But funerals happened, sometimes in defiance of the laws. Most were buried in coffins, usually covered in a shroud. Some were buried without a coffin. Very little is known about the specific people who were buried. But there are records about the cemetery itself. The cemetery was closed in the 1790s and the land divided and landfill and new buildings occupied the space.
In 1991, construction began on the Ted Weiss Federal Building. The remains were found and protesters halted construction so that the sacred ground could remain undisturbed until they could be respectfully cared for. In 1992 there was archeological work at the site and the remains were sent to Howard University to be studied and a lot was discovered about the life of Africans in colonial New York. In October 2003, the 419 remains were placed in hand-carved coffins from Ghana with Kente cloth interiors and traveled for six days from Howard University to the African Burial Ground where they were interred. The site had become New York City’s first below ground historical landmark in 1993. The national monument was created by Presidential proclamation in February 2006 and the memorial was dedicated in October 2007.
It is truly a place for reflection and celebration. Ceremonies honoring ancestors are held there and people are encouraged to leave flowers on the graves.
By Carene Lydia Lopez