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African Burial Grounds National Monument in Manhattan, New York (via Ken Lund/Flickr)

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Lawmakers from the United States Senate and House of Representatives have reintroduced a bill to expand the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York into an international museum and education center.

Located in Lower Manhattan, the African Burial Ground holds the remains of more than 15,000 enslaved and free Black people buried during the 17th and 18th centuries. The 6.6-acre burial ground was discovered in 1991 during construction work for a new federal office building when workers first found the skeletal remains of more than 400 men, women, and children. Identified as one of the earliest and largest excavated cemeteries of people of African descent in North America, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark 1993 and a National Monument in 2006.

During a press conference at the site Thursday, April 1, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Jeffrey Nadler reintroduced the African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Educational Center Act of 2017. They were joined by New York congress members Hakeem Jeffries, Gregory Meeks, Carolyn Maloney, Grace Meng, and Adriano Espaillat.

“The museum would create a new venue where we can grow our understanding of the true history of our nation, our state, and the institution of slavery in the United States and around the world,” said Gillibrand. “At this moment in time, where we are having a reckoning, as a country, on the justices and inequalities the African American black communities have been subjected to from the earliest days of our nation today. This museum and educational center could not be more important.” 

The museum would house a collection of historical artifacts and documents. It would also provide a place for DNA research tracing the homes and ancestral countries of the people buried at the site.

The proposed museum is planned as a “sister” site of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, according to Gillibrand. “It will host complimentary exhibits and foster collaboration between the two museums and other museums as well as historically Black colleges and universities,” the senator said.

Nadler, who sponsors the bill in the House of Representatives, said: “We cannot successfully fight for equality without a clear understanding of the history of slavery in this country. The development of a shared history is not spontaneous. It takes work, dedication, and respect to those who write it.”

Meeks, a congressman from Queens, delivered an emotional address that referenced the ongoing murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who killed George Floyd in May 2020.

“If it wasn’t for those brave souls that were able to withstand the Middle Passage, and then deal with all of the racism, the enslavement, the Jim Crowism that existed in this country […] If they couldn’t maintain and succeed, my second grandchild could not be here, I would not be here,” Meeks said.

“This is just not an ordinary piece of legislation,” the congressman continued. “This is not just any regular ceremony to me. This is really emotional. This is really important.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...