Mon, Oct 06, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Remains of slaves reinterred in downtown Manhattan

The sensitive issues of race and slavery rose when it was discovered a planned municipal building would rest on a former slave cemetery in Lower Manhattan

By Michael Luo  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Men carry one of two hand-made caskets from Ghana made for the African Burial Ground Memorial Project from Liberty State Park to a ferry in Jersey City, New Jersey, Friday, for transports to New York City. More than 400 caskets containing the remains of slaves were discovered a decade ago during building construction in Manhattan.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

The hole is dug. The crypts are ready to be filled. More than 400 hand-carved mahogany coffins, containing the skeletal remains of free and enslaved African-Americans, are sitting in a temperature-controlled room in Lower Manhattan.

After three centuries and 12 years, they are ready to be laid to rest for a second time.

On Saturday, in a moment of joy and bitterness, the 18th-century remains were ceremonially lowered into the ground and covered, in the same place where they were discovered a dozen years ago as the federal government prepared to build an office tower. The reinterment followed a day and a half of observances, including a procession up the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan. It also brought a symbolic close to an especially tumultuous chapter in the city's racial history.

The joy, those close to the project agree, comes from seeing the belated celebration of lives and history once forgotten. The bitterness, they say, stems from the fact they had to be reburied at all.

"It was the considered judgment of virtually every African-American I knew that they shouldn't have been disturbed in the first place," said Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which helped bring together all the factions seeking a voice in the project.

The discovery of the remains, in a huge Colonial-era cemetery, have offered anthropologists a rare glimpse into the lives of the first black Americans in New York, which in the 18th century had more slaves than any other city in the country besides Charleston, South Carolina. Some skeletons, for instance, were found with holes in the collar bones, a sign that the person was forced to carry loads as heavy as 40kg to 80kg.

But the find also touched off a battle that pitted the federal government's desire to complete a long-delayed building project against the sensitivities of African-Americans. Even after the government bowed to political pressure and agreed to preserve a small piece of the burial plot, the effort to rebury the remains bogged down in wrangling over the details.

It all began in 1991, when the General Services Administration (GSA) began preliminary work on a US$276 million, 34-story federal office tower at 290 Broadway. Early on, archaeologists working for the agency stumbled upon part of an 18th-century cemetery, once known as the Negros Burial Ground, that is believed to hold as many as 20,000 bodies.

Historians had believed that little remained of the burial ground, which covered what was then a desolate five-acre patch on the outskirts of New York. City maps showed that portions of the cemetery had been paved over as early as the late 18th century.

As it turned out, the remains had been protected by nearly 20 feet of landfill deposited on the site during the early 19th century. Workers first found rotting wooden coffins, then actual remains, virtually intact.

The GSA's initial plan was to simply exhume the bodies and continue construction, which had fallen badly behind schedule. But after an outcry from blacks and preservationists -- joined by Mayor David N. Dinkins and members of Congress -- the agency agreed to redraw the blueprints for the building. It eliminated plans for an underground parking garage and a four-story pavilion that was supposed to be built over the graves.

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