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African Burial Ground Memorial Opens in New York City


Sixteen years after the rediscovery of an African burial ground in Lower Manhattan, New York City and federal officials dedicated a memorial on the site, and paid tribute to the thousands of nameless men, women and children buried there. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim has the story.

No one heard anything as Manhattan expanded and more and more construction over the 17th century burial ground hid any last traces of its history. The story of an estimated 15,000 Africans, both freed and enslaved men, women and children, was soon forgotten. Buried some seven and a half meters below street level, the bodies were discovered in 1991 when workers were digging the foundation for a new federal building on the site.

The 28,000 square meter site's rediscovery resulted in a major archaeological study to learn more about the city's early African and African-American history.

Lurita Doan is head of the US General Services Administration (GSA), a federal agency that manages government buildings and sites. At a memorial dedication in New York recently, the first African-American female head of GSA said these men, women and children have "returned from the past" to teach us something.

"We learned about the hardships that they faced, how they lived, and how they died, about their native countries, about the contributions they made, and mainly, about the traditions that they brought to this great country," she said.

Doan reminded the audience of federal employees, city and government officials, media, and invited guests that President Bush last year declared the site a national monument. She said this is the first national memorial in the United States to address slavery or the early African-American experience.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that when excavators discovered the bodies in 1991, they uncovered more than just a burial ground.

"They brought to light one of the most uncomfortable and tragic truths in our city's history: that for two centuries, slavery was widespread in New York City," he said.

According to historians, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Africans and African Americans living in New York City were not allowed to bury their dead within city limits. So they used this unclaimed land outside of the city to bury and pay tribute to their dead. When the site was rediscovered, excavators unearthed artifacts and precious belongings, like necklaces and rings, alongside the bodies. The burial ground was closed at the turn of the nineteenth century and New York City's vast development took over.

Poet and African-American advocate Maya Angelou spoke at the ceremony. She said America was built with immigrant hands and that we must honor all the men and women who have gone before us.

"Today it's African-Americans because the playing field has not been even," she said. "But it could have been Asian Americans. It could be a cemetery for Jewish Americans or a Muslim/Islamic Americans' [cemetery]. It could be a Native American cemetery. It is imperative that each of us knows that we own this country, because we have already been paid for."

Angelou read a poem about the slave trade in the United States and told the audience that we must never again forget the physical and symbolic presence of the African Burial Ground.

To make certain the burial ground is not forgotten, a physical monument has been erected on the site where some four hundred bodies were removed in 1991 and studied, before they were reburied in 2003.

Designer of the monument, Rodney Leon said the memorial, made of stone from Africa and the United States, should be a place for reflection. He said he wants his fellow Americans to think about the sacrifices of those who passed and for so long were never acknowledged.

"No longer will someone be able to walk by this site and not be drawn in by the physical presence of the ancestors, the spiritual presence of the ancestors and the physical presence of the memorial," he said.

The memorial officially opened to the public after the dedication ceremony last week. Some say it was a long time coming with various issues delaying the project originally, including the lead excavator at one point accusing the government of not providing enough time and funds. But now the memorial stands, reminding us not to forget another shameful chapter in history.

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