Reburial of colonial-era blacks closes one controversial chapte
NEW YORK -- Twelve years have passed and more than $25 million has been spent since the discovery of a colonial-era burial ground for slaves and free blacks in lower Manhattan triggered a controversial preservation project.
When the remains of more than 400 people are reinterred today in an elaborate ceremony that follows a five-city procession, it will be a high point for the federally sponsored effort to commemorate the site.
So far, it has been marked by low points. The project has been beset by long and unexplained delays. Several million dollars more are needed to complete a memorial and interpretive center. Despite a $1 million annual public outreach budget, local officials say the agency in charge has often paid little heed to community input.
"The issue of community displeasure ... has been with the project since Day 1," said Howard Dodson, director of the Harlem-based Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, recently hired by the government to plan the reburial ceremony.
Activists say the General Service Administration, the agency overseeing the burial ground, left them out of important decisions such as the choice of potential memorial designs.
Public hearings this summer were marked by cynicism and anger.
"We still feel left out of the process," said City Councilman Charles Barron, head of a community group that has promoted recognition of the burial ground.
Closed in 1794 and long forgotten, the five-acre burial ground was the final resting place for tens of thousands of people of African descent. When it was rediscovered during construction of a federal office tower in 1991, community pressure prompted the government to abandon work and begin examining the remains.
$25 million spent
GSA records show the $25 million spent thus far has gone for research at Howard University in Washington, D.C., for public education and for the reburial itself.
The agency expects to spend at least $6 million more for the memorial and interpretive center, to be completed by October 2005.
No research has yet been published on the remains. An initial report is due out in November, with a final report in March 2005.
Dodson said, the Schomburg Center plans a "respectful, dignified" reburial today. Four symbolic coffins, hand-carved of wood in Ghana and containing the bones of two adults and two children, left Washington on Tuesday, traveling through Baltimore, Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia and Newark, N.J., with each city holding a commemoration.
The four wooden coffins arrived in New York City on police boats Friday morning. After a ceremony at the South Street Seaport, a procession bore the coffins to the African Burial Ground, where they await reinterment on Saturday.
"This reinterment ceremony is probably the most significant spiritual moment in the whole saga," Dodson said.
On the Net: African Burial Ground: http://www.africanburialground.com