Scattered throughout the crowd gathered to celebrate the dedication of the African Burial Ground National Monument in lower Manhattan were community activists who remember arriving at the site in 1991 when steam shovels had disinterred more than 400 graves. A few of the activists observed the ceremonies through a slight glaze of tears, recalling colleagues who did not live to witness the now “sacred space” they had so steadfastly guarded.
“Some of them are gone, have joined those ancestors we cherished, but some of us are still here and they should be recognized for the sacrifices they made,” said Adunni Oshupa Tabasi. Many of the people summoned for the celebration, she added, “have no idea what we had to do to make this day possible.”
It was indeed a glorious two-day celebration, replete with pomp and circumstance worthy of the first U.S. monument to memorialize Africans and those of African descent who endured slavery as they helped to build this nation. Designed by New York architect Rodney Leon, it is the city’s most recent monument. When construction began on a new federal office building in 1991, workers were astonished to find bones amid the earth they moved. Black activists, including the late Sonny Carson, Noel Pointer and Eloise Dicks, and Rev. Herb Daughtry, Elombe Brath, and Elder Tabasi, were outraged, demanding the digging to cease. A debate ensued on how to repair the damage. Since the bodies had been disturbed it was decided to complete forensic studies on the 419 skeletal remains, then rebury them. They were re-interred four years ago and the seven mounds on the grove leading to the monument signify their eternal resting place.
At the dedication on Oct. 5, their memories were evoked by Adelaide Sanford, a former regent of the New York State Board of Education, and Lt. Governor David Paterson. “We hope they can hear our words of love because we are here to validate them. Our ancestors did not begin in chattel slavery or end in emancipation. We are free but not liberated,” Sanford said.
Paterson added, “Now, I can die in peace. We are here to honor our raisin in the sun—our Ellis Island.” His recollection of the struggle and devotion it took to erect the monument echoed the words of poet Maya Angelou, N.Y.C. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.).
The monument comprises seven basic elements, including a triangular granite wall soaring above a circular libation chamber. While the exact cost of its construction has yet to be tallied, much more money is needed to complete the museum and the educational facility to complement it. To date, contributions have been received from the U.S. General Services Administration, the National Park Service, Time Warner Inc., Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Trinity Church, and Edward and Carolyn Lewis of Essence magazine. “Freedom ain’t free,” declared Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).
Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, emphasized that point. The African Burial Ground Monument Foundation Campaign is seeking $5 million in gifts and contributions over the next two years, he said. According to a press release, $3 million is needed to provide interpretive materials and programs to enhance audience understanding of the significance of the African Burial Ground, including the memorial dedication; $1 million is needed to develop educational materials for use by teachers, schoolchildren, scholars and the general public; and another $1 million is needed to build awareness of the relevance of this national monument to past and future history among the broadest possible national and international audience.
Overall, some $10 million is required to complete and sustain the programs attached to the monument, which amounts to roughly $500 for each of the estimated 20,000 bodies buried in the 6.6.-acre cemetery. This is a small price to pay for the amount of labor these ancestors gave without compensation.
By Herb Boyd