The Wages of Regret: How Do We Remember Painful Portions of History in the Context of a Modern City?

In 1991, when construction crews digging at the corner of Broadway and Reade Street came upon a colonial-era cemetery known

The African Burial Ground National Monument, in Lower Manhattan.
The African Burial Ground National Monument, in Lower Manhattan.

In 1991, when construction crews digging at the corner of Broadway and Reade Street came upon a colonial-era cemetery known as “Negros Burial Ground,” much was made of the find’s archaeological significance. Familiar to historians, the site entombed slaves and free blacks, as well as American Revolutionary War Prisoners. But scholars hadn’t, up until then, had any notion of how much of the burial ground remained.

“The mind-boggling thing about this site is that so many research areas have been opened,” Michael Parrington, a New Jersey-based archaeologist, told the New York Times. The paper’s report, however, had little to say on the subject of memorial. There were murmurs about removal of remains to the Trinity churchyard, in Harlem, and discussion of a permanent exhibit to occupy the lobby of the building—a 974,000-square-foot, $276 million federal office tower—that had been planned for the site, but little else.

That discovery has perhaps been on the mind of Metropolitan Transit Authority officials of late, as the agency considers what do with its busing facility at 126th Street, standing, as it does, atop another burial ground for slaves and freed slaves, that is associated with Harlem’s oldest religious congregation—the Elmendorf Reformed Church. As the Post recently reported, community activists led by Elmendorf reverend Patricia Singletary have spent years lobbying to replace the depot with a memorial and cultural center. And though anonymous sources indicated that the MTA was leaning toward relocating the terminal, some find the notion unfeasible: “It’s impractical to close down this depot,” J.P. Patafio, of Transport Workers Union Local 100 told the Post. “It’s going to disrupt service.” (Mr. Patafio favored a monument that would not inconvenience commuters; home to the M15 fleet responsible for the city’s busiest route, the 126th Street depot represents something of a critical transit node.)

The Elmendorf Reformed Church in its present location, on 121st Street
The Elmendorf Reformed Church in its present location, on 121st Street

At Broadway and Reade, four-hundred and nineteen bodies were eventually discovered, and some 15,000 slaves are believed to be buried in an extended, contiguous area totaling nearly seven acres, making it the largest African burial site in North America. (President George W. Bush ultimately declared the site of the 1991 discovery a national monument, and a multimillion-dollar memorial rose nearby. But much of the extended grounds now host office buildings.) The site’s size, the Times noted in a subsequent article, bespeaks the oft-forgotten prevalence of slavery in New York in the early chapters of national history: “At the middle of the 18th century… one in five New York City residents was a slave, a proportion second only to that of Charleston, S.C.”

“We’ve gone hundreds of years in this city and typically, you’ll read a history of New York, and they don’t give a damn about where the black folks were,” Christopher Moore, a historian at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture recently told The Observer. “‘Oh, and by the way,’ they’ll say, ‘the blacks arrived in Harlem in the 20th century,’ when in fact they were there in 17th century to help build the colony. People often want to imagine slaves as this separate, disconnected category, but those slaves were working folks. They were essentially colony builders.”

Early slave-powered projects included the construction of a nine-mile road from Lower Manhattan (New Amsterdam) to the recently-established Nieuw Haarlem, which Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered in 1658. Shortly thereafter, in 1660, Nieuw Haarlem residents chartered the First Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem, erecting its first building five years later on land that now occupies the corner of East 127th Street and 1st Avenue. Adjacent to the church, according to a 2011 report by the Hunter College Department of Urban Affairs & Planning, was a quarter acre set aside for a “Negro Burying Ground.”

Subsequent years saw the church moved, destroyed and renamed. (Today, it is none other than the Elmendorf Reformed Church.) In 1853, under the stewardship of white leaders, the congregation sold the land that had been set aside for black burials to the highest bidder, fetching $3,000. Used for most of the remainder of the 19th century as parkland, the site would later play host to a casino, a succession of film studios and, beginning in 1967, the MTA bus depot. (A separate portion of the burial ground containing the bodies of white congregants, which, Mr. Moore said, was known as “God’s Acre,” had its occupants transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery, around 1869.)

“There’s no indication of the owners of the cemetery property notifying any of the black families,” Mr. Moore said. “The difference is that the white families were notified. None of the whites were just left in the ground.”

A construction crew digging foundations for a condominium building recently uncovered another tomb in Elmhurst, Queens, and leaders from the nearby Saint Marks A.M.E. Church have begun efforts to memorialize those grounds, where one of the first churches organized by former slaves is believed to have stood.

“They’re all over,” Mr. Moore told us, referring to slave burial grounds that have been submerged and forgotten. “Municipalities just did not show a great deal of care for black cemeteries,” with the result that many were buried—first by earth, and then by progress. He could not guess how many more might lie beneath the city.

The MTA has been aware for at least three years of the burial ground at 126th Street, but had been noncommittal about closing the facility. According to the Post’s report, however, the authority may shut down the depot as early as June, scrapping plans for a refurbishment in 2015.

An overlay of the burial ground with the MTA depot at 126th Street, as indicated by church records.
An overlay of the burial ground with the MTA depot at 126th Street, as indicated by church records. (NYPL)

“Frankly, I was surprised to hear that,” Professor Pablo Vengoechea said. A visiting scholar of architecture and urban design at Hunter College, Mr. Vongoechea helped oversee the school’s 2011 report on the site. “But I think it’s great news. Basically, we’re talking about the lack of recognition of a people. We need to consider what we do with that. How do we memorialize this site?” As opponents of relocation have noted, in the context of a city with a chronic shortage of space, creating memorials of a size and mode commensurate with the wishes of advocates—and the emotional and historical significance of the 126th Street burial ground—can present certain practical difficulties.

Matthew Bissen, a PhD candidate in geography at CUNY who also worked on the Hunter report, told us that the document considered three central contingencies—one in which the city would grant no accommodation, one in which space for a memorial would be made available in the context of an active terminal, and one in which the MTA would vacate the site altogether. “We were working with the concept of what it would mean to memorialize in general,” Mr. Bissen said. “What would it mean to memorialize something in the contemporary world of what East Harlem is now? It’s much different now than it was when it was a Dutch colony. A lot of the work was how to connect the people who live there now with that historical layer. How do we allow the layers of history to be present within our society?”

The disappearance of black cemeteries was also in part the result of practical concerns: “I’m not aware of any published protests,” Mr. Moore said. “That’s not to say there weren’t, but I’m not aware of any. Within the context of that culture, where these people were without any protection, and they were well aware of that, if you heard that your burial ground was being buried—if you heard that, well, that’s just what was being done. It’s very hard for 21st century minds to wrap around, but the segregation was deep and compelling. You’re trying to get your kids through school. You’re trying to work.” To remonstrate would not have been worth the costs. “Everyone knows about the victimization,” he continued. “But what people don’t comprehend is that ultimately, everyone, black and white, was trying to do the same thing—just make life a little better for their families.”

The Wages of Regret: How Do We Remember Painful Portions of History in the Context of a Modern City?