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New York Reburies Colonial-Era Slaves

October 05, 2003|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — Underneath a gray Manhattan sky, thousands of people turned out Saturday for the reburial of 419 Colonial-era slaves and free blacks just a short distance from the market where some of them once were sold.

"It's a special day, solemn and significant," Jim Huffman, 52, a New York librarian, said as drummers in traditional African kente cloth provided a musical backdrop for the crowd.

The remains had been uncovered in 1991 during construction of a federal office tower in Lower Manhattan.

Under pressure from the community, the government abandoned the work and began examining what they had found. The site turned out to be a five-acre burial ground that had been closed in 1794 and long forgotten. It was the final resting place for an estimated 20,000 people of African descent.

The reinterment ceremony Saturday marked the end of a long struggle to have the African Burial Ground recognized.

David Dinkins, the city's first black mayor, pointed out during ceremonies held Friday that the burial ground was outside the limits of 18th century New York City, evoking a kind of apartheid even in death.

"Two centuries ago, not only could African Americans not hope to govern New York City, they could not hope to be buried in the city limits," Dinkins said.

Four sets of the remains -- a boy, girl, woman and man -- were returned to New York on Friday after being honored this week in Washington; Baltimore; Wilmington, Del.; and Newark, N.J.

People wept Friday as the four wooden coffins -- accompanied by more than 300 others on five other horse-drawn carriages -- proceeded slowly from the South Street Seaport near Wall Street and up Broadway to the site.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told an audience of about 1,000 people Friday that the South Street Seaport, now filled with shops catering to tourists, had once been the site where slaves were auctioned.

"Once, African Americans of our city were bought and sold on this very spot," Bloomberg said. "It's fitting that this is where we are receiving them. As mayor of New York, I welcome them home. May they rest in peace, the peace they so richly deserve."

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