African Burial Ground : New York City, NY …The pursuit of US National Monuments was proving to be a remarkable bridge. Thus far I had been connected to natural beauty, prehistoric beasts and epic historical events. Only the African Burial Ground National Monument remained to wrap up these installations for New York City, and this would not only span a gap in my knowledge, it would allow a crossover to the Brooklyn Bridge. But first I would need to get across some troubled waters in my nation’s history.
The basic division during the American Civil War was between northerners, who sought freedom for slaves, and southerners, who did not. The sad takeaway from reading American history is that the north’s insistence on freeing slaves was a far cry from equality. Free blacks in the north were still confronted by violent discrimination and deemed inferior. What I had not realized prior to exploring African Burial Ground was the extent to which slavery persisted in the north.
In what is now the USA, enslavement of Africans began in New York City. The Dutch landed eleven slaves here in 1626 when the city was New Amsterdam. By the dawn of the American Revolution in 1776, African Americans represented 20% of the population in the thirteen colonies, but over 40% in New York City, second only to Charleston, SC. A weak first step to end slavery would be passed by New York State in 1799, proclaiming that children born to slaves from then on were “free”…but still remained ‘indentured servants’ — 28 years for males and 25 years for females! Full freedom would not be granted until 1827 and unlike whites, blacks were required to possess a hefty amount of property in order to vote (a restriction not removed until 1870, five years after the Civil War ended).
I offer this brief history to convey there had always been a significant black population in New York City and that it always coexisted with significant prejudice. The British took over the colony from the Dutch in 1664 and when the Church of England gained possession of the community graveyard in 1697 they banned burials of anyone of African descent. It should come as no shock the new grounds would be located just beyond the stockade marking city limits.
Despite being ‘out in the country’, the black cemetery was not even a mile north of Wall Street. As the city continued to sprawl, the new burial ground was closed in 1794 and ironically ‘buried’ beneath eight yards / meters of landfill. Skeletons would be uncovered over the next two centuries when basements were dug for homes or larger buildings were raised, but largely ignored. No interest would be motivated until 1991, when excavation to raise a sizable federal building revealed over four hundred intact burial sites. Efforts of the local African-American community would prove instrumental in raising awareness and coaxing the federal government to cease construction where remains had been uncovered.
Continuing efforts would lead to the site being declared a US National Monument by President George W. Bush in 2006, followed by a memorial being installed the following year. The memorial is inspiring: a granite complex with many facets depicting the diaspora forced upon Africans by slavery. The original layout of the cemetery is etched into the southern wall, offering stark realization how little has been preserved. The grounds cover 0.35 acres, though the cemetery spanned 6.6 acres: several hundred bodies would be carefully exhumed and subsequently reburied on site, but the conservative estimate is that more than 15,000 souls remain beneath downtown skyscrapers. Visitors walk down the Processional Ramp to descend six feet below street level, where these bodies continue to rest.
I felt the descent served an additional benefit of erasing hustle and bustle from above, permitting focus upon the spiritual rather than the physical. The walls are inscribed with an astonishing array of symbols; many African, but others evolving from cultures impacted by forcible relocation to North America, South America and the Caribbean. The floor of the memorial displays a map of Africa, radiating out to destinations where slaves were transported against their will.
Continuing endeavors led to the creation of a wonderful complement to the memorial in 2010. Just around the corner from the memorial is a visitor center which captures the struggles of African Americans in New York City. The visitor center is free admission, like the memorial, but entrance here requires a security check. This minor inconvenience is quickly repaid by a wealth of quality exhibits. The lives of African Americans in early New York City are admirably portrayed in addition to the science of respectfully excavating grave sites.
Perhaps I have shared amazement of how many interesting things seem to be nearby National Monuments, and today would be a repeat performance. To reach African Burial Ground I hopped off the subway at the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station. Although I had tinkered with adding the Brooklyn Bridge to my schedule, until this moment it had been dismissed because the agenda got too crowded.
The allure of Brooklyn Bridge had been fanned by David McCullough’s saga, “The Amazing Bridge”. A fascinating story, the suspension bridge began under supervision of John Roebling, a rags-to-riches emigre from Prussia who had already constructed the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge spanning the Ohio River (and like the Brooklyn Bridge, remains in use 150 years later). Sadly, Roebling was plotting locations down on the docks at the project’s beginning when his foot was crushed by an arriving ferry. Several toes were amputated and John succumbed to tetanus a month later.
The entire operation was turned over to Roebling’s son, Washington, who was a more than capable successor. The younger Roebling’s innovation created new techniques to accommodate construction of the enormous bridge and fortuitously evolved the design as circumstances dictated. Unfortunately, Washington was constantly on site, and spent much time in the watertight chambers drilled beneath the East River to support the bridge towers. There was zero knowledge around ‘the bends’ at this time, and many bridge workers would suffer the effects.
Air compression in a work cell beneath the river was tremendous. This is illustrated best by the subterranean bathrooms: nothing more than a box filled with water with a pipe leading up and out to the river: when it was time to flush you only opened a valve and the compressed air immediately forced everything up and out the pipe! Three workers would die and many more would be debilitated, including Washington. The bends manifests itself in a wide range of symptoms and Roebling’s maladies ranged among severe headaches, weakness and severe pain from loud noise.
Incapacitated, Washington would turn to his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, to take the reins. Emily became Brooklyn Bridge’s unsung heroine, teaching herself engineering and assuming project supervision for eleven years. Emily was pretty much the only person Washington interacted with during this time, and their magnificent collaboration brought the bridge to completion.
To accord my respects for Emily’s astounding effort was the primary motivation for a visit, and earlier research revealed there was a pedestrian walkway open to the public. So after the African Burial Grounds I followed some signs down to the East River. I really wish I could regale you with a stunning tale, but the stroll was unpleasant due to crowds. Yes, it was a beautiful day, but insufferable on a Wednesday at the end of October: I cringed to visualize this jaunt on a weekend or during the summer. The structure has many interesting facets and there are views of Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines, but savoring anything was ruined by throbbing masses of humanity.
Travel always seems to be one step ahead of me. Not only had the first NYC segment been penned just before COVID lockdowns, I had almost completed this African Burial Ground piece when George Floyd was senselessly murdered. My usual writing approach is to scribble thoughts and return later to try and make it less painful for you to read. This time, however, what lies above remains unedited because I wanted to capture the original emotion, unaffected by recent events. Without lessons offered by travel which opened my eyes to remarkable diversity and inherent equality, I fear immersion in US culture alone would have left me as intolerant as too many fellow citizens.