African Burial Ground Interpretive Center Set to Open in Lower Manhattan

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Museum designed to inform visitors of Burial Ground and black colonial history opens February 27th in New York

The Visitor’s Interpretive Center for New York’s African Burial Ground is set to open in Lower Manhattan on February 27th adjacent the monument which commemorates the burial ground. The center is located in the federal building whose construction 19 years ago led to the unearthing of a graveyard containing the bones of African Americans from the 17th and 18th centuries. The discovery of the bones was the subject of demonstrations and protests and eventually led to part of the site being declared a National Landmark, a portion of the new building construction being abandoned and bones which had been dug up being reinterred. The visitor’s interpretive center designed by Roberta Washington Architects provides the backdrop for telling the story of the African burial ground and those buried there.

Manhattan is the site of several African burial grounds – segregated cemeteries where Africans brought to New York starting in the 1620s as slaves and lived as slaves and freed persons – were buried. The largest African burial ground was shown on maps from the period as existing in a five acre area in the vicinity of Broadway and Duane, Chamber and Church Streets in downtown Manhattan. A portion was uncovered in 1991 when construction workers unearthed dozens of bones while excavating new building foundations.

Concerned citizens led by local African American community and cultural leaders protested that the burial site was being desecrated and that the contributions of African Americans to Colonial New York should be recognized. Local politicians and historians got involved as did Congressional Sub-Committees and eventually President Bush signed the law which funded an ‘appropriate’ memorial. The digging and construction stopped and the four story portion of the building planned for the area where the bones were discovered was abandoned. The remains of 419 burials which had been sent to Howard University for study were returned and reinterred in 2003. The site was declared a National Landmark and designated a New York City Historic District. It is now overseen by the National Park Service. In 2009, a GSA and National Parks Service design competition resulted in the construction of a monument designed by Arris Architects.

The visitor’s interpretive center is located on the ground floor of The Ted Weiss Federal Building. Rough textured granite floors with muted black liberation colors give an earthen quality finish to the orientation and reception spaces. These spaces flow into an exhibition space with exhibit designs by Amaze Inc. The curve of the theater entrance decorated in various African symbols leads visitors to a short introductory film; the circular shapes used in the design of the ranger station evoke drums used to disseminate information during the colonial area to freed and enslaved Africans. There is also a multi-purpose room for storytelling and programs, research/study areas and passage to monument-related artwork located in the building’s lobby. The interpretive center, which opens February 27th, provides an opportunity for visitors to explore and appreciate the lives and contributions of these early Americans of African ancestry.

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Roberta Washington, FAIA
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