July 9, 1992
Paving Over Black History
Anthony M. Tung

There is a plot of land in Lower Manhattan of extraordinary importance to the history of our city, and it is being taken from us. Once this place was called the Negro Burial Ground, and it bears witness to the harsh iniquity that African-Americans suffered in New York in the 1700s. Here were interred men, women, and children who had been kidnapped from their homes in Africa and pressed into lives of poverty and servitude in America. And here were interred former slaves who had been "freed" to live in a hostile and alien society.

These people were buried here because they were not allowed to be buried elsewhere. There are no graves of slaves in the Trinity Churchyard. Instead, they were buried here anonymously, without a stone to recall their names or existence. Long ago, this Potter's Field was covered and built upon, and for more than a hundred years the Negro Burial Ground was hidden from sight, memory, and conscience.

Recently, in preparation for building a 34-story federal office building on the block bordered by Broadway, Duane, Reade, and Elk Streets, the General Services Administration was required by law to perform an archeological search on the site. Urban historians suspected that part of the Negro Burial Ground still existed, undisturbed, below the surface and they were right. Work on the office tower was delayed as the remains were uncovered. Almost 400 skeletons were found. It was an extraordinary and sad discovery, one of the few remaining sites in New York giving evidence of the lives of the first African-Americans in the city.

Many people would consider such ground sacred. But, in the onward rush of progress, the GSA disinterred the skeletons from their resting places, moved them to storage at Lehman College and began construction of the tower.

We would not consider it proper to raise an office building over the graves at Valley Forge, the blood-soaked ground of Gettysburg or the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Isn't it important for our children to know that we also respect the graves of slavery's victims?

One smaller part of the site is still not built upon, and beneath it lies more of the burial ground. Here, the GSA plans to build a four-story pavilion to adjoin the office building. The archaeological excavation is proceeding right now, and historians expect to find another 150 skeletons. When the archeologists are finished—perhaps in the next few weeks—then, again, the feds plan to remove the remains of the dead and begin construction. The GSA has offered to allocate $250,000 toward a monument (the cost of the tower is $200 million) and 600 square feet of corridor space for this memorial. This proposal is amazingly meager, insensitive and inappropriate.

 The Negro Burial Ground should be designated a landmark and protected by the city, state, and federal governments. The construction of the four-story pavilion should be deferred. There should not be a monument in a corridor. Instead, the remaining piece of the block should be preserved as a graveyard. And the bodies should be left to lie in peace and dignity, with nothing above them but earth, air, and rain.

Unfortunately, this is not likely to happen. The only publicly advanced alternative proposal, presented at a town meeting at Trinity Church hosted by the offices of the mayor, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Manhattan Borough President, State Sen. David Patterson, and the City Council, calls for establishing an African-American Memorial Museum in the very office complex that will obliterate the burial site. This proposal assumes that none of the graves can be left in their original resting places.

One cannot help but recall a similar recent failure by the city and the Landmarks Commission to designate another significant African-American historical landmark, the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was killed. When will we learn that it is important to understand and preserve the history of all the groups of people who have contributed to the growth and welfare of New York?

Since its founding in 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated more than 1,900 properties in New York City. Few of these are of greater historic significance than the Negro Burial Ground. Designation of this site by the Commission, while not binding on the federal government, would pressure it to recognize the profound meaning of this special place. Perhaps the GSA would not honor New York's sense of the importance of our heritage. But at least then the moral failure would be theirs alone. We cannot expect others to respect our values if we do not act to uphold them ourselves. Soon it will be too late to save this hallowed ground. Our neglecting to act sanctions the graveyard's desecration.