Lives of Colonial Black New Yorkers Celebrated at Historic Burial Ground


It was a school day, but students from Fredrick Douglass Academy and P.S 119 were jam- packed Thursday in the polished African Burial Ground National Monument Building at 290 Broadway, as a free public Black History Month event kicked off honoring abolitionist Frederick Douglass on his 195th birthday.

“Ago, Amay,” which means “attention” in the Twi language often spoken by the Akan people, was one of the many phrases the students repeated after African percussionist Nana Kimati Dinizulu, creator of his ensemble, “ Kimati Dinizulu and his Grits and Cornbread.”  This group’s vivacious performance displayed high-spirited music from an array of techniques and traditional instruments, used to create a beautiful sound to influence spiritual and cultural roots throughout the room.

“My group is a new formation geared towards assimilating information about black and African people,” said Dinizulu, 56.  “I haven’t been to the African Burial Ground National Monument visitor’s center in about 20 years.  Now, to come back here for a second time and see that our ancestors are finally being respected, it’s a great feeling and I’m honored to be a part of it.”

This is one of the many programs this museum offers to celebrate Black History Month. Organizers aim  to continue the legacy of providing special student programs for the general public in addition to the normal tours: documentary screenings, musical performance and readings to entertain and educate visitors of all ages about their ancestors, honoring both slaves and leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X.

“Once you know your history, it’s very hard for people to shut you down,” said Dinizulu.

“In order to learn more about the African Burial ground, you must have some understanding and appreciation of the African presence in early New York,” said Ranger Douglas Massenburg, the first park ranger assigned to the place when it became a National Park Service site and monument on February 27, 2006 by President George W. Bush.

Historical documents show that the burial ground was founded in the 1690’s when a man named John Sharp witnessed Africans burying their own people. At the time the city center was farther downtown and blacks were not allowed burial in white cemeteries. In 1794, as the city moved northward, hills were graded, urbanization advanced and the burial ground was – well, buried.. The construction of the subway in 1904 further covered and destroyed human remains and the cemetery was lost to memory.

In 1991 federal government began excavations for a $300 million federal office building when workers discovered  human remains, which scientists and historians indentified as remnants of the African Burial Ground.  After community protests and congressional action, contruction was suspended to allow preservation of the site.

In 2010, the memorial and indoor visitor center was completed to pay tribute to the memory of the forgotten New Yorkers.

“It’s our job at the National Park Service, to maintain, oversee and ensure that it’s properly kept and to tell and teach the history of the accomplishments of enslaved Africans in colonial early New York” said Massenburg. “People need to be aware of this site that teaches this same African history in New York City.”

The center  won a National Award for its design and accessibility. And the school kids indeed paid attention.


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