By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Cemeteries are at least as much for the living as the dead. They are the locus of tribute and memory; they affirm connections to a place and its past.
So in 1991, when during construction of a General Services Administration office building in Lower Manhattan, graves were discovered 24 feet below ground, and when those remains led to the discovery of hundreds of other bodies in the same area, and when it was determined that these were black New Yorkers interred in what a 1755 map calls the “Negros Burial Ground,” the earth seemed to shake from more than just machinery. The evidence created a conceptual quake, transforming how New York history is understood and how black New Yorkers connect to their past.
Among the scars left by the heritage of slavery, one of the greatest is an absence: where are the memorials, cemeteries, architectural structures or sturdy sanctuaries that typically provide the ground for a people’s memory?
The discovery of this cemetery some two centuries after it was last used provided just such a foundation, disclosing not just a few beads, pins and buttons, but offering the first large-scale traces of black American experience in this region. Here, underneath today’s commercial bustle, are tracts of land that for more than a century were relegated to the burial of the city’s slaves and free blacks.
In all 419 bodies were discovered — giving a clue to how many others still lie under the foundations of Lower Manhattan. (Estimates have ranged from 10,000 to 20,000.)
The new visitor center, inside the federal building that was ultimately constructed over a portion of the excavation (the other part became a burial site and memorial), is meant to explain the site’s significance — not a simple task, because the passions stirred by the discovery were not just historical, but also personal. There was a felt connection to the people, unearthed in their disintegrating coffins, who in the early decades of the city’s settlement were often forced into its construction. A sacral regard for the dead was joined with a sense of identification and continuity.
The months after the discovery only amplified those passions. While the city has paved over a multitude of cemeteries in its hectic past, here the government’s initial intention to exhume and preserve the remains while proceeding with its nearly $300 million construction project was sadly inadequate. Protests and political interventions led to the suspension of building and the revision of plans.
In 1993 the burial ground was placed on the National Register of Historic Places; in 2006 the memorial site was declared a national monument and placed under the oversight of the National Park Service. In 2007 a memorial sculptured by Rodney Leon was unveiled, and now the site’s $4.4 million visitor center means to place it all in context.
To do this the center’s exhibition (created by Amaze Design) combines a sense of communal rededication with a sense of historical enterprise that followed the 1991 discovery. A revision in popular understanding has taken place about slavery’s history in New York City, evident in several recent books and an impressive series of shows at the New-York Historical Society. In the 18th century slaves may have constituted a quarter of the New York work force, making this city one of the colonies’ largest slave-holding urban centers
For seven years scholars at Howard University, led by the anthropologist Michael L. Blakey, also examined every bone fragment and relic found at the site before they were ceremonially reinterred in 2003 at a memorial next to the slightly shrunken footprint of the new building. The scholarly reports, alluded to in some of the displays, show injuries to bones attributed to strenuous physical labor, signs of malnutrition and some physical indications (like filed teeth) of an African heritage.
These various themes do not always accompany one another felicitously in the exhibition; in fact the passion and the detached historical analysis often seem to trip over each other, but the overall impact is considerable. The visitor center also includes an introductory film, a shop and classroom space.
You leave the building to see the memorial itself, where in seven raised mounds containing crypts filled with coffins, all the human remains and artifacts were reinterred. At the memorial’s center is the starkly ponderous $5 million monument of black granite designed by Mr. Leon.
The site seems carved out of the area’s bleak office surroundings. It makes the past seem like an excision, a resurrection of an alien time and place, a reminder of what lies deep underfoot.
The initial appeal of the show is emotional, immediate. “You are standing where thousands of Africans buried their loved ones during the 1600s and 1700s,” it begins. “Slave holders forcibly brought these men, women and children here from the Caribbean and Africa.”
Displays are built around a life-size tableau in which a few black slaves gather around two wooden coffins — of a child and a man — about to be interred in the burial ground. We hear outdoor sounds along with the unfamiliar funereal chants of a woman leading the ceremony. The mourning figures, sculptured by Studio EIS, are uncannily affecting.
In keeping with the site’s recent history, the personal becomes political. Throughout the exhibition, contemporary black New Yorkers are referred to as “the descendant community,” a group with familial connections to the remains. “Reclaiming Our History” is the show’s title.
And one part of the exhibition is an account of the struggle to preserve the site, paying tribute to political activism. Five “scrapbooks” outline the political battles and controversies. Racial radicals, serious scholarly arguments, national politics and impassioned community hearings all play roles.
The creation of the burial ground and the visitor center becomes, in the show, a consummation, a posthumous triumph. But there is also a tendency to exaggerate the effect of that activism. It became clear relatively quickly what this site represented and that something more was required than a simple archaeological excavation.
The best parts of the exhibition are about the distant past. We learn, for example, that of the 419 graves examined, nearly half were of children. We see graphs comparing mortality in this gravesite and the Trinity Church graveyard (Trinity had forbidden the burial of blacks there in 1697); there was a significant difference in life expectancy.
Manual labor, as another display points out, also left its mark on bones. One schematic portrait of a man’s skeleton points out that the skull is notable for a “thickened ridge where his shoulder and neck muscles connected to the back of his head,” caused by heavy lifting.
And because nothing concrete is known about any of the remains — “only 20 percent” were found with any personal items and even those were minor — the exhibition smartly incorporates individual examples of slaves identified because they escaped, were freed or were sold. The displays also give a condensed survey of slavery in New York, its onerous laws, its rebellions and its perversities.
But the passions inspired by the burial ground seem to skew the account. One Howard University report is explicit: The “research agenda” was “designed and implemented” to address topics raised in community meetings. They were to focus on “the cultural and geographical origins” of those buried, “the quality of their lives under captivity,” the ways they resisted and how they created new identities.
These are all important matters (though there is no evidence, as the exhibition says, that “determined activists and scientists created a new way to study past people’s lives”). But some of the questions also seem to presume certain answers. A partial reading indicates that the reports themselves are impressive and cautious. But we don’t really know from the displays what to make of the skeletal evidence of physical strain, or the fact that half the studied remains indicated malnutrition, without comparing those findings to bone samples of free manual workers of the period. This would surely reveal something about slavery in New York, even if limning its brutal nature might seem crude.
The show also asserts that the blacks buried here had close cultural connections with Africa. It would be surprising if there were no such connections, and there is some evidence here. Around the waist of one corpse was a string of beads and shells associated with African customs; the coffin of another is inscribed with a symbol that has been linked to an African “sankofa” sign (and turned into a logo now used for the visitor center and the outdoor monument). But the assertion of the connection, at least in the exhibition, reaches beyond the evidence; some of the tests were also apparently inconclusive.
And one exhibition section is devoted to contemporary African culture without showing any real connection with the burial ground or its artifacts. We see samples of cloth now made in Nigeria and Mali, a picture of a fabric market in Ghana, a pipe from Benin — though no cloth survived in the burial ground, and no pipe is mentioned as a relic.
The point is simply to establish an association. Instead it raises questions about it. A historian outside the Howard group has even challenged the assertion that the “sankofa” sign had the African meaning ascribed to it.
And while no such exhibition can fully pay attention to scholarly details, at times we seem guided here to ignore complications rather than understand them. The show says, for example, that all those buried here were slaves. But even the research panel’s reports are less sweeping.
Certainly the vast majority were enslaved, but there is evidence of free blacks in New York, well before this gravesite was closed in the 1790s. Washington Square Park is on land once owned by free blacks whose farmsteads in the mid-17th century spread over 130 acres. And by 1790 a third of the city’s blacks were free.
We are talking about small numbers of course, but all the numbers are small. New York’s entire black population in the middle of the 18th century was no more than 2,500.
So there is still much more to be understood about the history of slavery and black Americans in New York. But in the meantime the burial ground gives back to both the “descendant community” and to everybody else a sense that we are all arising out of a more complex and painful past than we have often imagined.
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