Lost in History, Vol. 40 

The Color of Freedom

We New Yorkers aren’t known for giving much thought to what lies beneath our feet. Either we’re far too busy to give presence of mind to the tarmac, cement, packed earth, pipework and occasional subway line, or we honestly don’t give a damn. Anyways, it’s not much to talk about — sewage lines, steam pipes, fiber-optics, electricity, the IRT, nothing very pretty. But in some cases, the sidewalk is just above some incredibly hallowed ground. All it takes is an accident for the history to come flooding out; that’s exactly what happened in Foley Square in 1991.

During a routine excavation for the Ted Weiss Federal Building on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan, the cranes started digging up some very old bones. Over 400 skeletons, some men but mostly women and children, were discovered on the 6.6 acre plot; clearly, it had been some kind of mass burial site. Construction was put on hold. The historians and archaeologists who studied the dug-up bodies determined that the skeletons were only a fraction of the 15,000 to 20,000 bodied interred throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, in a mass gravesite for freed Africans, half-freed slaves (under Dutch rule) or enslaved blacks (under the British). Whole families were discovered on the site, along with a few personal talismans and belongings buried with some bodies, as per particular African rituals. It is the oldest and largest burial site in the nation, and last year it was declared a national monument.

So what better way to enshrine these forgotten humans, toiling and striving like all New Yorkers, than with a public memorial and monument to their hard work. It was slaves who built the Wall on Wall Street and who land-filled out Manhattan to Water and West Streets. And it was the slave community of ancient New Amsterdam that proved the nascent spirit — through the Dutch distinction of “half-slaves.” The half-slave title bestowed upon the slaves an ability to live in their own homes, pray in their own churches and, most importantly, be buried in their own graveyards. In fact, the Africans of New Amsterdam had it far better before the English arrived, and then threw the blacks into shackles again, and deprived them of their churches and cemeteries.

The African Burial Ground National Monument underwent a massive decade-long historical excavation, and the pictures of the discovered bodies, as well as their stories and a view of the to-be-built memorial, were posted on a fence around the perimeter. Not anymore — on Friday, with great fanfare, the City of New York unveiled a $5 million granite-and-reflecting-pool memorial, complete with a sunken circular court, wall-inscribed symbols and archeological notations, and an Ancestral Liberation Court. Detailed on the granite slab ground is a map of the world, its center on West Africa. There are seven grassy mounds detailing the seven burial spots where bodies were re-interred four years ago. The memorial was designed by Rodney Leon, 38, a Brooklyn-born architect for the Manhattan firm of Aarris Architects.

This new memorial is spitting distance from another important memorial to the abused slaves of our common history: Triumph of the Human Spirit, by Dr. Alonzo Pace, an austere black marble statue right in the center of Foley Square. This one resembles both an African slave ship as well as the headpiece to an Egyptian headdress, noting another powerful symbol of the birth of mankind. Next time you make your way downtown through Foley Square, stop a minute as these two powerful works of remembrance, and pay some respects. And never forget: under the streets, history.

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