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For the Power of a Proper Burial: African Burial Ground

For most people, religions, and cultures, a funeral is a symbolic end to the life of the loved one they have lost. The burial ceremony can provide a lot of closure for the family and provide a place where they can return to reconnect, pray, and remember. Often many families who have missing children say that the hardest part is never having any closure or a proper burial for their beloved. Cemeteries are sacred ground for anyone who visits.

I have a fondness for historical cemeteries, for the connection to the past. As I have mentioned in previous posts ( ; always look pay my respects to past presidents whenever I can. I think it is amazing in a way that I can stand near them.

Recently I went to visit the African Burial Grounds in NYC to pay my respects to a different population. In 1991, while renovating their building, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), uncovered bodies buried beneath their grounds. Apparently after much research, it was discovered that more than four hundred Africans between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had been buried here. 

During that time period, Manhattan would look very different than today’s map, with much of the land undeveloped and mostly farmland. Second only to Charleston, South Carolina, NYC had the largest number of slaves for that time period so it was completely plausible that they too would bury their dead here.
After careful removing all of the bones that were found they were send to Howard University for careful cataloging and analytical work. There was much debate and protest over how the remains would be treated and where and how they would be reburied. It was decided they would go back to where they came from, this time with proper respect and burial.

In 2003, President George W. Bush designated the site a National Historic Landmark and in 2006 a National Monument. The project was complete and dedicated on October 5, 2007 in an elaborate ceremony. In February 2010, a visitor’s center was added in the GSA building to educate those who come to the burial grounds about the deep significance of what we may otherwise take for granted.

As I approached the visitor’s center I did not quite know what to expect. I go through a lot of these types of things in my travels and when they are free, as they are here, you never know what to expect. Each major city has some attraction whether it is burial grounds, the liberty bell, or a museum. You get the idea. It may be grand or small but when it is free sometimes you really do get what you pay for. However, though this was a rather tiny setup it was really nicely done. The exhibits were powerful and tasteful.

I have to say my favorite part was the film they show. You sit in an actual movie theater. This was a facility of a high caliber. I have been to movies where I feel like I pay $15 and am uncomfortable for two and half hours for no reason. But here, I was comfortable and entertained. What a thought, you can be educated and the film does not have to be cheesy or of government quality. It didn’t talk down to you (in case you really didn’t know why you were there) and you left excited to go out to the burial grounds to see the completed work. It made you glad to be a part of the experience and glad that you made the choice to visit.

Needless to say the grounds themselves are breathtaking and kept immaculate. The artwork and the design are really quite powerful. It is something you have to pause for after viewing for a few moments to make sure it is really sinking in. I am still overwhelmed looking at my pictures, though it is one of those experiences I am sorry to say they don’t truly capture. Believe me that is hard to admit.

If you read the post before this one, you will note that while every memorial, exhibit, and so on are completely different and hard to compare, free doesn’t equal quality. But to see what two different groups were able to do with federal funding was impressive. The African Burial Grounds runs solely on congressional appropriations and private donations and in these trying times that isn’t much. Great institutions like this need your support and we need them to continue to education us.

Below is a link to the bill that is currently in Congress that Senator Chuck Schumer introduced. I found it interesting that this Act specifically mentions partnering with the Smithsonian for a museum in Washington D.C. for a project geared towards African American history and culture. I had heard about this museum online and am early awaiting construction to be completely sometime in 2015. It was remarkable to find a link while reading this legislation.

I really enjoyed my visit and am proud to recommend it to anyone in town.

Please visit and spread the word around.

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