In 1991, during construction of a federal office building in Lower Manhattan, one of the most important archeological finds of the 20th century was uncovered… the African Burial Ground. Africans and their descendants, who were forced to come to New York to help build the city, buried their loved ones here from 1626 to the late 1700s. Dutch law had prohibited African burials in public cemeteries so they used this site, outside of the city limits at the time, to honor their dead.
In 1794 the burial ground closed and its land was divided up and sold. For the next two centuries building after building and layer upon layer of debris covered the gravesite. And, up until that day in 1991 while construction workers were digging deep to lay a foundation, the cemetery had long been forgotten.
Immediately following the discovery, protesters demanded that construction stop and the remains be returned. Local activists who were outraged and disgusted by plans to continue with development worked tirelessly to preserve the site and honor New York’s first Africans. Finally, their hard work paid off, well, sort of.
A special ceremony was held to honor all 419 human remains and rebury them. Then, the building did go up, but outside of it on Duane Street they erected the African Burial Ground Monument. The monument is very powerful and includes signs and symbols of all African cultures. Around the corner on Broadway, you’ll find a small museum on the first floor. It pays tribute by offering a short film inside the theater, a reenactment in the center of the museum with an audio included, and loads of pictures and artifacts.
In the film offered, African American commentators say that “this is our Ellis Island” and that the site is not just about Black History, but American History finally being told.