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Reclaiming History at the Harlem African Burial Ground

Nov 05 2019
Reclaiming History at the Harlem African Burial Ground
The remains found at the site of the Harlem African Burial Ground were consecrated in a ceremony led by the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force co-chairs Reverend Dr. Patricia A. Singletary (center), Former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (right), and Task Force Member Sharon Wilkins (left).

The Harlem of the 1600s was a vastly different place than it is today.

Back then, at the dawn of New York City’s history, it was a small, rural village populated by Dutch farmers and traders, and people of African descent—both free and enslaved. The African community buried their deceased at a place known as the African Burial Ground. This half-acre burial ground was part of the Low Dutch Reformed Church (now the Elmendorf Reformed Church), which served as a place of worship for New Yorkers of both European and African heritage.

As the city expanded and developed over the centuries, however, this early history of NYC’s first black residents would be tragically erased. While the church and the European cemetery were relocated, the African Burial Ground was neglected, left behind, and ultimately developed over. The former churchyard became a beer garden, casino, film studio, an army barracks, and, finally a trolley and bus depot for the MTA, occupying a full, 2.5-acre city block—all while the remains of these early black New Yorkers lay below ground.

But their memory was never forgotten. In 2009, a group of concerned citizens, local elected officials, and civic and religious leaders formed the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force to advocate for the creation of a memorial that would restore dignity and respect to those buried at this sacred site. In 2015, after the MTA announced it would relocate its operations, archaeologists found disturbed subsurface conditions and disarticulated human remains under the bus depot. The discovery of the remains has opened an opportunity for those buried to finally receive the honor and respect that is centuries overdue.

Notions about American life and history are incomplete without knowledge of a rich and compelling American narrative that has been lost for over three centuries.
Sharon Wilkins
Manhattan Deputy Borough Historian and Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force member

The Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force is working with NYCEDC to reclaim, preserve, and recognize the historic and cultural significance of the Harlem Burial Ground. The burial ground will be redeveloped into a permanent outdoor memorial, while the remainder of the block will become home to a new cultural center and mixed-use development for the East Harlem community.

The City currently seeks an operator for the memorial and cultural education center. The selected operator will work to help create a living memorial following the vision laid out by the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force.

Programming at the cultural center will commemorate the history of the burial ground and the church to which it once belonged, honoring the lives of those who helped to build this city. In addition, the development project is expected to include affordable housing for low-income residents, commercial space, employment opportunities, and community space in accordance with priorities established by community stakeholders.