Legacies of Slavery at the African Burial Ground

The Wall of Remembrance at the African Burial Ground Memorial in lower Manhattan. source: All photos by Philip M. Katz.

Earlier this month, we had a chance to visit the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, NYC. (“We” being most of the Legacies project staff from CIC and the Gilder Lehrman Center, representatives from our seven Regional Collaboration Partners, and representatives from some of their community-based collaborators.) The highlight of the visit was a tour of the moving outdoor memorial with its designer, architect Rodney Leon. The memorial is located on a site where approximately 15,000 enslaved and freed Africans or New Yorkers of African descent were interred during the 17th and 18th centuries. The largely forgotten burial ground was rediscovered during the excavation of a federal building in 1991; following a public outcry about the handling of human remains, the site became a national monument, incorporating a National Park Service museum and the public memorial (with a federal office building behind it).    

Rodney Leon (gesturing) and participants in the Legacies of American Slavery Public History Institute at the African Burial Ground Memorial (August 2, 2022).

Leon described some of the competing “challenges in developing a design for memorial projects [related to slavery]” in a 2020 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley:

  • Education: “I would state this almost as a kind of like a manifesto, a memorial must first communicate and educate. I maintain that architecture of memorialization must communicate and educate as a timeless teacher.”
  • Presence: “The memorial must be a medium of communication and education for all people of all ages, classes, genders, religions, nationalities and ethnicities. A memorial must also have a significant and powerful urban presence, a memorial must be seen at a distance and standout to establish itself visually and formally within the fabric of its environment.”
  • Cultural specificity: “We also believe that our memorial’s design must be what we call culturally contextual. By that term, I mean the language form and function and ritual behind the elements constituting the memorial should be inspired and/or derived from some cultural or historic precedent. … [The African Burial Ground memorial was] influenced by both traditional and monumental African architectural typology.”
The Ancestral Chamber at the memorial was designed to evoke the infamous Door of No Return at Gorée Island, Senegal.
  • Emotion: “[A] monument … carries and creates meaning. A memorial site must be designed as a sacred site, and a memorial as a sacred object within that site.”
  • Reflection and celebration: “Memory and culture are inherently loaded with issues related to death, loss, triumph and tragedy that can be … sensitive to the individual in different ways. These memories as well as people that created them, sustained them, must be celebrated. The site must be a place of pilgrimage and the monument, a place of reflection.”
  • Universality: “The monument must speak to all people into our shared experiences. … African American space, like African American history must not be seen as a separate from American or architectural history at large. It is a fundamental part of our collective consciousness and as well as our identity as Americans.”