African Burial Ground, New York City

Rodney Leon, African Burial Ground National Monument, 2006, New York City, an ARCHES video, speakers Dr. Renée Ater and Dr. Steven Zucker

Additional resources
African Burial Ground National Monument, National Park Service
Rodney Leon Architects
Establishment of the African Burial Ground National Monument, Federal Register
Research findings, Cobb Laboratory, Howard University
Mapping the African American Past, Columbia University

Contemporary Monuments to the Slave Past

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re at the corner of Duane and Elk Street in Lower Manhattan, and we’re walking into the African Burial Ground National Monument, a small, grassy plaza surrounded by large federal buildings.

Dr. Renée Ater: [0:17] What’s most striking to me as we enter this space is the seven burial mounds. They’re a reminder that there are sarcophagi that have been reburied with the remains of 419 Africans who were buried in this cemetery.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] It’s important to remember that that’s a tiny fraction of the thousands of people that were buried just north of what was then New Amsterdam and later New York City.

Dr. Ater: [0:41] This is a small space, less than a third of an acre. The cemetery was originally about five to six blocks, which would have made it several acres.

Dr. Zucker: [0:49] Although this particular space has been set aside, under the buildings that surround us is a much larger burial field for men, women, and children who were enslaved in early New York.

Dr. Ater: [1:01] As you move through the space, you see the very large ancestral chamber and you hear the faint sounds of running water.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] The sound of the water creates a kind of audio envelope for me. It allows me to enter a more contemplative space that is almost insulated from the sounds of the city outside.

Dr. Ater: [1:18] The flow of the water is now evident as we make our way closer to the ancestral chamber.

Dr. Zucker: [1:23] There’s an inscription that’s been engraved into the granite. It reads, “For all those who were lost. For all those who were stolen. For all those who were left behind. For all those who were not forgotten.”

Dr. Ater: [1:34] That restores the humanity to these people who were once buried in the cemetery. Also, what these words remind us is we cannot ever forget that slavery was an integral part of New York City in the colonial period, the largest slave population outside of South Carolina.

Dr. Zucker: [1:49] The Dutch West India Company brought the first enslaved peoples to New York and the enslaved population of New York only grew from that point on.

[1:57] By the 18th century, according to some estimates, one out of every five, perhaps out of every four New Yorkers was an enslaved person.

Dr. Ater: [2:06] It suggests a much more diverse and multicultural community living in New York City at this time.

[2:11] We are walking closer to the ancestral chamber, which takes the form of a mastaba.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] These were burial structures that date all the way back to the Old Kingdom in Egypt.

Dr. Ater: [2:21] Rodney Leon, who designed this memorial, is making that connection back to Egypt and Africa.

[2:27] Next to the words, there is a heart-shaped design called a sankofa. It is an adinkra symbol from the Akan people of Ghana. It means to go back, to return to one’s history and to learn lessons from the past.

Dr. Zucker: [2:40] The doorway frames a much darker interior space. It’s also quieter.

Dr. Ater: [2:45] Leon very deliberately created a pause moment within the memorial.

Dr. Zucker: [2:50] The walls lean in. Although there is a soaring quality, there’s also a sense of entrapment. There seems to be an analogy to being within a ship’s hull, perhaps being within the prow of a ship as an enslaved person.

Dr. Ater: [3:04] The other thing is the enormous slabs of granite that make up this triangular tomb.

Dr. Zucker: [3:09] This black granite was imported from Africa.

Dr. Ater: [3:12] Selecting where your granite comes from says something about the monument itself.

Dr. Zucker: [3:17] There’s something really deliberate about the way we’re invited to walk down eight steps to this lower platform. First, we have to cross a bridge, and then we get to this large, inscribed, circular map.

Dr. Ater: [3:27] It feels as if we are docked in a ship, and then we will cross the gangplank, so to speak, and enter into the larger space called the Ancestral Libation Court.

[3:36] I notice as we descend the staircase, the sound of the water becomes more pronounced. Water as transport, but water as a spiritual passageway as well, that allows the ancestors to move from this world to the next world.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] That becomes even more powerful when I remember that there are still bodies buried below us.

Dr. Ater: [3:54] We are in a sacred space that is now a monument.

Dr. Zucker: [3:57] By libation, we’re talking about a ritual which remains common in many cultures in West Africa.

Dr. Ater: [4:04] These libations can be palm wine, they could be alcohol, they could even be blood offerings.

Dr. Zucker: [4:11] That liquid is poured onto the ground.

Dr. Ater: [4:13] You’re offering the ancestors this libation. You’re recognizing the power of their presence within this space.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] These practices were not always allowed in the 18th century.

Dr. Ater: [4:23] The cemetery comes into being because of the notion that Africans could not be buried in the Trinity Cemetery, which is a white-only burial space.

Dr. Zucker: [4:30] In fact, there were rules passed that not more than 12 people could attend an African funeral, and that the funerals had to take place during the day. Remember, where we’re standing was north of the city itself. In fact, there was a palisade, that is a wooden wall, that separated this space from the city to the south.

Dr. Ater: [4:48] There’s a fear that congregation might lead to insurrection, rebellion, resistive acts, and so that regulation of even burial practice is central to how New York City slave owners thought about the enslaved persons who worked for them.

Dr. Zucker: [5:03] We’re in a circular space with a ramp that spirals up, but in the center inscribed in the paving is a map of the world. We can make out the east coast of the United States, of where New York is located, and see it in relationship to the triangle trade, in relationship to West Africa, to South America, and even to Europe.

Dr. Ater: [5:21] This is a really enormous capitalist movement. This push to harness Black labor to profit in the United States, the Caribbean, and South and Central America.

Dr. Zucker: [5:31] In New York, enslaved labor was used to clear roads, to build palisades, clear land, and every other form of hard labor.

Dr. Ater: [5:39] Around the parameters, we see the burial site numbers.

Dr. Zucker: [5:43] There’s something really powerful and immediate about seeing the description of the dead, but there’s also something troubling about the language that’s used.

Dr. Ater: [5:52] We do not have a document that records everybody who was buried here. And so what Leon and his partners are relying on in this memorial is the archaeological evidence.

Dr. Zucker: [6:01] It’s also a stark reminder of how much we’ve lost, of the identities of these people, of their lives.

Dr. Ater: [6:08] It also tells us something really significant for the time period, and that is the disregard for Black lives, particularly in death.

Dr. Zucker: [6:14] Even when you look at maps of old New York, you see early on representations of what was marked as the Negro Burial Ground, but then, as we move into the 18th century, those references are erased and then buildings appear including almshouse, a hospital, and a prison.

Dr. Ater: [6:32] They have to address very real needs in the city, but at the same time, there’s a desecration that takes place.

Dr. Zucker: [6:37] Let’s walk up the ramp.

Dr. Ater: [6:38] These engravings are called the Circle of Diaspora. The ramp is called the Spiral Processional Ramp. What’s interesting about these engravings is they are meant to represent ideograms from Africa, Latin America, and [the] Caribbean that were familiar to African and New World African communities.

[6:56] There’s a haptic relationship with the monument, where you want to trace them with your finger.

Dr. Zucker: [7:00] We just saw a group of schoolchildren walk through the monument, and each one wanted to touch these engravings.

Dr. Ater: [7:06] Then we come to a series of images that represent religion. We see the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life. We see a medicine wheel from a Native American circle of life, the Latin cross for the Christian faith, and then we see the Islamic crescent with a star.

Dr. Zucker: [7:22] It’s important reminder of the cosmopolitan nature of early Dutch and English New York.

Dr. Ater: [7:28] There are three last symbols. One is an image of a turtle, denkyem, which means adaptability. We move on to a symbol of a heart, akoma, endurance. We end with the nsibidi, love and unity.

[7:41] There’s a way in which the monument offers us a promise of a different kind of future.

Dr. Zucker: [7:45] This is just as we rise out of the monument and rejoin the city itself. Before we do walk back out onto the street, let’s swing around to the opposite side, because there’s one part that we’ve missed.

Dr. Ater: [7:57] On the side of the ancestral chamber is a map of the former cemetery, as a reminder of how extensive this cemetery used to be.

Dr. Zucker: [8:06] This monument is such an important reminder of the enslaved labor that was used to build the city, a history that has been almost completely erased.

Dr. Ater: [8:16] This notion of erasure is really significant when it comes to the memorialization of the past and of slavery, about who gets remembered in public space, who has the right to have a monument, [and] how do we go about deciding what these monuments are going to look like?

[8:31] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Renée Ater and Dr. Steven Zucker, "African Burial Ground, New York City," in Smarthistory, August 1, 2020, accessed April 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/african-burial-ground-new-york/.