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HomeNewsArchivesBURIAL GROUND RESPONSE: A TALE OF 2 PLACES

BURIAL GROUND RESPONSE: A TALE OF 2 PLACES

Remember the remains of an earlier community uncovered in 1990 during the pre- construction excavation for Tutu Park Mall? Know whatever happened to the artifacts and human remains removed from the site by archeologists and their volunteers before it was paved over to make a parking lot? If you don't, that's not surprising, for there is no public commemoration today that such remains were ever found or that such a site ever existed.
In a much bigger place — the city of New York — and on a much bigger scale, something similar happened at about the same time. But what has come about in response to that event is a far different story.
It was in 1991, as excavation work began at a Lower Manhattan site for a new federal office building, that an 18th Century burial ground of some 420 African-Americans was uncovered. The burial site was adjacent to, not directly on, the plot where the building was go up, and eventually, as happened with Tutu Park Mall, constuction proceeded. But that was by no means the end of the story.
As news of the "find" was disseminated, mobilization within the African-American and wider African-descended community was the response. Motivated by these concerted expressions of concern — political lobbying in its purest form — the federal goverment to date has committed $21 million to a project to commemorate the burial site, analyze the remains and then reinter them, and memorialize those buried there in a format that will interpret their lives to present and future generations.
$1.5 million to create interpretive center
On March 13, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) announced that the General Services Administration had selected the firm of IDI Construction Co. to design and build the interpretive center. The firm was chosen following an extensive public participation process that included imput from a panel of African-American historians and exhibition designers. The $1.5 million contract is to create a structure dedicated to "honoring and recognizing the lives and contributions of those African ancestors who lived and died in this city," GSA official Ron Law said.
The burial ground adjacent to the federal office building at 290 Broadway has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The 2,000 square foot center, a "multi-media environment" targeted to open this fall, will be located within the building itself. Later, an exterior memorial will be installed at the actual burial site.
Project executive Peggy King Jorde said the interpretive center is intended to facilitate "an understanding of the significant cultural, historic and scientific findings, while also acknowledging the contemporary civic movement largely credited with preserving this important site."
IDI is a multi-disciplinary group of architects, designers, engineers, researchers, a historian, an anthropologist, multimedia and computer-assisted drafting specialists, a public relations specialist and an artist. The artist is Philip Bailey, a former part-time St. John resident. He has created a tactile "drum wall" that will be installed in the center. As visitors touch the wall at various places, they will trigger digital recordings of drumming from different African societies.
St. Thomas artist and gallery/shop owner Corinne Van Rensselaer was in New York when the project was announced and attended the press conference. IDI, she says, is "a young group, and part of their appeal to the GSA is they what they will produce will have appeal to young people."
IDI executive vice president Trevor Prince says the group's concept for the center is a "journey" symbolizing "the physical movement and cultural dispersal defining the African Diaspora." The journey will unfold in four phases, he said, "birth, maturity, death and rebirth — which are represented architecturally in four containers — orientation, studio, transformation and reclamation."
Scientific, educational and exhibition design experts from Howard University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, Arizona State University, Yale University, and SUNY/Cooperstown made recommendations to GSA on appropriate means of commemoration.
Reinterment of remains planned
A public-input selection process similar to that used for the interpretive center is under way for the design of the exterior memorial for the burial ground. GSA expects to announce the plans for that project later this year and to see the memorial installed in 2001. The memorial project encompasses scientific research, memorialization, public information and education. The human remains are being studied at Howard University; once the memorial is installed, they will be reinterred at the site.
The burial ground project is among the federal government's most ambitious historic site endeavors, with more than $21 million commited to it in the last eight years. Of that amount, $5.1 million has gone for scientific research on the human remains at Howard University's Cobb Lab. The contract for bioanthropology, history and archaeology studies is conditional on the delivery of a scope of work rather than a time deadline. Study of the skeletal remains is substantially complete; research on the artifacts is ongoing.
GSA's Office of Public Education and Interpretation (OPEI), opened in 1993, publishes a quarterly newsletter reporting on the project that has an international circulation of 15,000. OPEI educators conduct about 12,000 tours, slide presentations and site visits annually for school groups, organizations and individuals. The office has sponsored forums, film festivals and open houses. About $4 million in federal funding has gone to these efforts so far.
GSA outreach also includes ongoing dialogue with community groups including the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, The Friends of the African Burial Ground, the Committee of Descendants of the Afrikan Ancestral Burial Ground, and an advisory task force established by Rangel.
GSA established the Office of Memorialization to assist with plans for commemorating the historic landmark and to help coordinate and facilitate community outreach efforts for the creation of the memorial and reinterment of the remains. Last fall, in response to concerns voiced in the African-American community, GSA streamlined the schedule for completing the center and memorial. A committee under King Jorde's leadership will coordinate community-based initiatives to plan the reinterment ceremony. A coffin-building project for the reinterment, called Homegoing, is designed to engage the African descendant community.
GSA has installed five permanent works of art relating to the burial ground outside and in the lobby of the federal office building: "Africa Rising," a bronze sculpture by Barbara Chase Riboud; "America Song," a fiber-optic and stone bas-relief by Clyde Lynds; "The New Ring Shout," a cosmogram by Houston Conwill with Estella Conwill Majozo and Joseph DePace; "Renewal," a silkscreen by Tomei Arai; and an untitled mosaic by Roger Brown.
A sixth work is to be installed. Three of the pieces were commissioned through GSA's Art-in-Architecture program and three were commissioned in response to the recommendations of the Federal Steering Committee on the African Burial Ground.
And what about the St. Thomas site?
Meanwhile, on St. Thomas, Myron Jackson, head of the Historic Preservation Division of the Planning and Natural Resources Department, says the artifacts taken from the Tutu Park dig in 1990-91 are still being analyzed. Some of the material was sent off island for analysis under the direction of former government archeologist Elizabeth "Holly" Righter, who supervised the dig and has since moved to Florida.
Righter told the Source that most of the material, "tons of stuff," is still stored at PNR facilities and that the study o
f items sent stateside is ongoing. She had hoped to get a book on the findings published by now but said, "We are having delays."
She said she has been in periodic contact with the Tutu Park Mall ownership about pledges made at the time of the dig to create an exhibition environment in the mall to display artifacts and provide interpretive information about the people whose civilization they represent. However, she said, there are no plans at present to establish such a center.
A critical difference between the New York burial ground and the St. Thomas site, Righter said, is that federal funding became available in New York because federal property was involved, whereas the mall was privately developed. She noted that the V.I. government provided $50,000 toward the archeological effort, and numerous community volunteers contributed their time to help. The developers delayed construction for more than a year while the dig proceeded.

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Remember the remains of an earlier community uncovered in 1990 during the pre- construction excavation for Tutu Park Mall? Know whatever happened to the artifacts and human remains removed from the site by archeologists and their volunteers before it was paved over to make a parking lot? If you don't, that's not surprising, for there is no public commemoration today that such remains were ever found or that such a site ever existed.
In a much bigger place -- the city of New York -- and on a much bigger scale, something similar happened at about the same time. But what has come about in response to that event is a far different story.
It was in 1991, as excavation work began at a Lower Manhattan site for a new federal office building, that an 18th Century burial ground of some 420 African-Americans was uncovered. The burial site was adjacent to, not directly on, the plot where the building was go up, and eventually, as happened with Tutu Park Mall, constuction proceeded. But that was by no means the end of the story.
As news of the "find" was disseminated, mobilization within the African-American and wider African-descended community was the response. Motivated by these concerted expressions of concern -- political lobbying in its purest form -- the federal goverment to date has committed $21 million to a project to commemorate the burial site, analyze the remains and then reinter them, and memorialize those buried there in a format that will interpret their lives to present and future generations.
$1.5 million to create interpretive center
On March 13, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) announced that the General Services Administration had selected the firm of IDI Construction Co. to design and build the interpretive center. The firm was chosen following an extensive public participation process that included imput from a panel of African-American historians and exhibition designers. The $1.5 million contract is to create a structure dedicated to "honoring and recognizing the lives and contributions of those African ancestors who lived and died in this city," GSA official Ron Law said.
The burial ground adjacent to the federal office building at 290 Broadway has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The 2,000 square foot center, a "multi-media environment" targeted to open this fall, will be located within the building itself. Later, an exterior memorial will be installed at the actual burial site.
Project executive Peggy King Jorde said the interpretive center is intended to facilitate "an understanding of the significant cultural, historic and scientific findings, while also acknowledging the contemporary civic movement largely credited with preserving this important site."
IDI is a multi-disciplinary group of architects, designers, engineers, researchers, a historian, an anthropologist, multimedia and computer-assisted drafting specialists, a public relations specialist and an artist. The artist is Philip Bailey, a former part-time St. John resident. He has created a tactile "drum wall" that will be installed in the center. As visitors touch the wall at various places, they will trigger digital recordings of drumming from different African societies.
St. Thomas artist and gallery/shop owner Corinne Van Rensselaer was in New York when the project was announced and attended the press conference. IDI, she says, is "a young group, and part of their appeal to the GSA is they what they will produce will have appeal to young people."
IDI executive vice president Trevor Prince says the group's concept for the center is a "journey" symbolizing "the physical movement and cultural dispersal defining the African Diaspora." The journey will unfold in four phases, he said, "birth, maturity, death and rebirth -- which are represented architecturally in four containers -- orientation, studio, transformation and reclamation."
Scientific, educational and exhibition design experts from Howard University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, Arizona State University, Yale University, and SUNY/Cooperstown made recommendations to GSA on appropriate means of commemoration.
Reinterment of remains planned
A public-input selection process similar to that used for the interpretive center is under way for the design of the exterior memorial for the burial ground. GSA expects to announce the plans for that project later this year and to see the memorial installed in 2001. The memorial project encompasses scientific research, memorialization, public information and education. The human remains are being studied at Howard University; once the memorial is installed, they will be reinterred at the site.
The burial ground project is among the federal government's most ambitious historic site endeavors, with more than $21 million commited to it in the last eight years. Of that amount, $5.1 million has gone for scientific research on the human remains at Howard University's Cobb Lab. The contract for bioanthropology, history and archaeology studies is conditional on the delivery of a scope of work rather than a time deadline. Study of the skeletal remains is substantially complete; research on the artifacts is ongoing.
GSA's Office of Public Education and Interpretation (OPEI), opened in 1993, publishes a quarterly newsletter reporting on the project that has an international circulation of 15,000. OPEI educators conduct about 12,000 tours, slide presentations and site visits annually for school groups, organizations and individuals. The office has sponsored forums, film festivals and open houses. About $4 million in federal funding has gone to these efforts so far.
GSA outreach also includes ongoing dialogue with community groups including the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, The Friends of the African Burial Ground, the Committee of Descendants of the Afrikan Ancestral Burial Ground, and an advisory task force established by Rangel.
GSA established the Office of Memorialization to assist with plans for commemorating the historic landmark and to help coordinate and facilitate community outreach efforts for the creation of the memorial and reinterment of the remains. Last fall, in response to concerns voiced in the African-American community, GSA streamlined the schedule for completing the center and memorial. A committee under King Jorde's leadership will coordinate community-based initiatives to plan the reinterment ceremony. A coffin-building project for the reinterment, called Homegoing, is designed to engage the African descendant community.
GSA has installed five permanent works of art relating to the burial ground outside and in the lobby of the federal office building: "Africa Rising," a bronze sculpture by Barbara Chase Riboud; "America Song," a fiber-optic and stone bas-relief by Clyde Lynds; "The New Ring Shout," a cosmogram by Houston Conwill with Estella Conwill Majozo and Joseph DePace; "Renewal," a silkscreen by Tomei Arai; and an untitled mosaic by Roger Brown.
A sixth work is to be installed. Three of the pieces were commissioned through GSA's Art-in-Architecture program and three were commissioned in response to the recommendations of the Federal Steering Committee on the African Burial Ground.
And what about the St. Thomas site?
Meanwhile, on St. Thomas, Myron Jackson, head of the Historic Preservation Division of the Planning and Natural Resources Department, says the artifacts taken from the Tutu Park dig in 1990-91 are still being analyzed. Some of the material was sent off island for analysis under the direction of former government archeologist Elizabeth "Holly" Righter, who supervised the dig and has since moved to Florida.
Righter told the Source that most of the material, "tons of stuff," is still stored at PNR facilities and that the study o f items sent stateside is ongoing. She had hoped to get a book on the findings published by now but said, "We are having delays."
She said she has been in periodic contact with the Tutu Park Mall ownership about pledges made at the time of the dig to create an exhibition environment in the mall to display artifacts and provide interpretive information about the people whose civilization they represent. However, she said, there are no plans at present to establish such a center.
A critical difference between the New York burial ground and the St. Thomas site, Righter said, is that federal funding became available in New York because federal property was involved, whereas the mall was privately developed. She noted that the V.I. government provided $50,000 toward the archeological effort, and numerous community volunteers contributed their time to help. The developers delayed construction for more than a year while the dig proceeded.