In early 1991, the construction of a federal office building in lower Manhattan was halted after an unexpected discovery. Underneath the ground, covered by a patina of concrete and steel, was the coffin of a colonial-era African. It was not alone. Construction work was halted, archaeologists called in, and it was soon established that the site was a major burial ground from the 17th and 18th centuries. As many as 15,000 to 20,000 black men, women and children were buried there, by the historians’ count, making this one of the most important archaeological finds in all America.
The significance was not lost on New York’s people or its authorities. Here was something that challenged the prevailing idea that there was no slavery in colonial New York, and it immediately took on symbolic importance for the city’s African–American community. In 1993, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark, the most important designation for a national monument, and a status it shares with the Statue of Liberty. And, in February, a visitor centre was opened there. Among the poignant displays is one depicting the dual funeral of an adult and child.
The African Burial Ground National Monument is both moving and fascinating because of what it reveals about forgotten lives. But it also says something about broader trends in memorialisation. We’ve stopped putting great men on pedestals and started commemorating their victims. In the process we are are losing a sense that human history involved leadership and struggle and, yes, sacrifice. In focusing purely on victimhood we are in danger of turning history into a random series of tragic events, instead of something that was purposeful and directed. Something made rather than just experienced.