The ground underfoot downtown Manhattan gave the developers of the new federal courthouse in 1991 a rather morbid surprise — the remains of 415 people, in a burial ground for enslaved and free blacks in the 17th and 18th century. Unknown and unmarked for decades, the site was declared a national landmark in 1993, and twelve years later, in 2005, ground broke on another landmark to be placed there — a specific memorial dedicated to the thousands of Africans buried there.
And now finally, last Friday, the African Burial Ground Memorial has offically opened, just a couple blocks north of City Hall.
The unusual frying-pan shaped monument, titled The Ancestral Libation Chamber, is an interactive structure of granite and water, incorporating African and religious symbolism in its design by architect Rodney Leon. (Click the picture to read the inscription).
You enter the monument through a narrow, triangular 20-foot tunnel, lined with pebbles, with a sliver of light from a above illuminating your walk. Its called ‘The Door of Return’, providing metaphorical transport in contrast to the ‘Door of No Return’ the many African ports lined with slave ships, taking their captures to foreign lands. Goree Island off the coast of Senegal is traditionally called the ‘Door of No Return’, although Africans were clearly taken from several ports.
Within a circular courtyard is a map of the world, with Goree Island as the focal point. Outside the circle, underneath seven grassy mounds, lies some of the re-buried remains. If you click on the picture, you will notice some vague identifications of these remains are actually carved in swirls around the map. It has a very haunting effect when you’re standing above it.
The granite used is a mixture from Africa and the United States. Around the perimeter, symbols are etched upon the walls representing the many possible religious beliefs of those interred here.
Seen in the forefront is Asase Ye Duru, a West African representation of the ‘living Earth’, literally meaning the ‘Earth has weight’
Below is a representation of Manman Brigette, a Vodun (what you may know as ‘voodoo’) deity who protects gravesites.
You can also find Christian, Muslim and ancient Egyptian symbols. The memorial, however, is not religious in a traditional sense, but represents all the possible benedictions of the people once buried there in a spirit of inclusiveness and reverence.
The burial ground memorial is just a couple blocks from another black granite monument to New York’s loathesome slave trade of the 17th century. In Foley Square just outside the New York County court house stands the black granite fountain Triumph of the Human Spirit by Lorenzo Pace, which uses West African animal and boat imagery to represent the Middle Passage, the fateful journey from Africa to the shores of America.