African Burial Ground Helps Strengthen Bond Between Citizens and Government
The uplifting saga of the African Burial Ground began on an uncertain note in 1991, when the U.S. General Services Administration’s construction of a federal office building in lower Manhattan collided with an unmarked Colonial-era cemetery for enslaved Africans.
Before they were reinterred near their original resting place in October 2003, the remains and artifacts of more than 400 17th and 18th Century Africans told an amazing story. Modern scientific testing revealed details about the hardships they faced, how they lived and died, about the traditions they brought to America, and the significant – and forgotten - contributions they made to our young nation.
On October 5, I attended a ceremony where a memorial was unveiled that will forever commemorate and communicate the message of the African Burial Ground. As I stood at the site, taking in the grandeur of this monument and watching others do the same, it struck me that the burial ground is more than a place of history. It also exemplifies the covenant of trust that exists between government and citizen.
That is, while our first step was a stumble – no one intended to disturb this sacred ground back in 1991, after all – subsequent actions by GSA, the U.S. Interior Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and many others were a deliberate march forward intended to correct the historical record. That record omitted the role played by free and enslaved Africans in the building of New York and other cities along the East Coast. In short, we found truth by accident and reported it on purpose. This was a delicate situation that could easily have gone awry. And in truth, there were some tense moments.
In the end, however, the remains were returned to the burial ground in a solemn and dignified ceremony. President Bush declared the site a National Monument. And we have now completed the memorial designed by architect Rodney Leon. I would like to congratulate the many federal, state and local agencies, as well as many other parties, like the Schomburg Center in New York and Howard University in Washington, DC for their collaborative and constructive work on the project.
The recent ceremony in New York City was cause for celebration because it represented the fulfillment of a pledge that ensures this piece of our history is never again swept under by the passage of time and events. But we also celebrated an intangible achievement – a willingness to accept responsibility, to rethink previous perceptions, and to correct the record as necessary. In so doing, we have also strengthened the bond between Americans and their government.
Lurita Doan is Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration.