January 18, 1992
Black Burial Ground Deserves More Than Just a Bronze Plaque

To the Editor:
Your Dec. 26 news article on the Negroes Burial Ground recently uncovered in lower Manhattan recalls the painful existence of black New Yorkers pressed into slavery in the 1700s, but it does not say what will happen to this plot after the archeologists have finished their work. Will the graveyard return to anonymity?

A government office tower is planned for the site. Perhaps the architects will mount a bronze plaque indicating that this was once sacred ground, that here ended the lives of people, destitute and forced to live in an alien culture. Is this the proper way to mark this place and these events? Is this history too distressful and embarrassing to remember? Would we rather forget?

As a former Landmarks Commissioner, I am concerned that New York City is failing to protect a significant legacy. On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the tenement synagogues of Jews fleeing centuries of religious oppression in Europe go undesignated as landmarks and stand in jeopardy of loss.

In Sandy Ground, on Staten Island, the last vestiges of a settlement of freed black oyster fishermen offered sanctuary in New York are fading from sight and memory. On Ellis Island, decaying buildings that once held immigrants waiting to be sent back to lives already abandoned or to be granted the protection of the Bill of Rights are now to become a commercial conference center.

The meaning of these places is not the same as that of the Beaux Arts Mansions of the Upper East Side or the elegant shopping palaces of Ladies Mile, whose beauty is protected by application of the Landmarks Law. A tenement synagogue, an immigrant's holding cell or an oysterman's shack, though modest as architecture, offer testament to the heroism of people who overcame poverty, injustice and prejudice and should be saved as part of the city's heritage.

If we do not make a strong mark on the land in proper remembrance of places like the black burial ground, then we put in danger of loss the most beautiful manifestations of the soul of New York. A bronze plaque is not sufficient. We must establish a presence in the cityscape so prominent and unashamed that no one walking by will fail to see it and remember the suffering and courage of the people buried here.   ANTHONY M. TUNG, Staten Island, Jan. 3, 1992