A Mission to Find, and Preserve, Forgotten Slave Graveyards

The African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan was established after bones were discovered under a site where a federal office building was under construction. A new database hopes to better track slave cemeteries. Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times The African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan was established after bones were discovered under a site where a federal office building was under construction. A new database hopes to better track slave cemeteries.

They’ve been bulldozed over by shopping centers, crept over by weeds and forgotten by time. Across the country, from Lower Manhattan to the Deep South, are unmarked slave burial sites, often discovered only by chance or by ignominious circumstance like when construction crews accidentally exhume bodies when building a shopping mall.

Compounding the problem of preserving and locating slave graveyards, is that there is no comprehensive list of where they are and who lies within them. The situation troubled Sandra Arnold, 50, a history student at Fordham University’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies, who traces her ancestry to slaves in Tennessee.

“The fact that they lie in these unmarked abandoned sites,” Ms. Arnold said, “it’s almost like that they are kind of vanishing from the American consciousness.”

Last month, Fordham introduced Ms. Arnold’s proposed solution, the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans, a Web portal that invites visitors to input information about the whereabouts and residents of slave graveyards across the country. The goal is to create a user-generated database of these sites all over the United States.

Though there are other similar projects, most are conducted on a regional level, or do not focus specifically on places slaves were buried. Find a Grave, a database used by many tombstone hobbyists and amateur genealogists, lists hundreds of thousands of plots, including those belonging to slaves. In 2001, in an effort to avoid disturbing burial grounds during a property boom, Prince William County in Virginia began collecting locations, joining private initiatives in Maryland, to catalog all of the estimated 6,000 to 9,000 slave burial sites in the state.

But still slave graveyards risk being trampled by time and construction. One of the most notable examples was in Lower Manhattan, where construction of a federal office building was halted in 1991 after the discovery of bones 24 feet below the surface. Just 419 bodies were discovered, though estimates of how many free and enslaved blacks were buried there range from 10,000 to 20,000. The African Burial Ground, as it was named, is now a national historic landmark.

Just last year, construction was held up for a new Walmart in Florence, Ala., after local residents protested that it would overlap with hidden burial sites.

“There is certainly a very important national need; it’s more than just an academic exercise,” said Lynn Rainville, a research professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, and an adviser to the database.

For Ms. Arnold it is also personal. The idea was born two years ago after visiting a Tennessee cemetery where her great-grandfather, who was born a slave, is buried. It was adrift in the middle of a field, she said, hardly the hallowed space that cemeteries typically are. “The fact that enslaved African Americans don’t have that sort of dignity,” she said, “it bothered me.”

The project’s ambition – to be a comprehensive database for the country – is hampered in part both by the fact that slaves were often perfunctorily buried and by historical quirk: headstones were a luxury in many Southern areas and both enslaved and free people were often buried with plain stone markers or none at all.

“A huge number of old cemeteries, even from the 19th century, are simply lost in the landscape,” Eric G. Grundset, the director of the Library of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, who has traveled the country researching the legacy of blacks in the war, said in an e-mail. “Memory is usually the primary source for locating such spots, so this project will rely very heavily on that for results.”

The database is still in its infancy, with just over a dozen entries uploaded since it began about a month ago. Irma Watkins-Owens, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Fordham, is a co-director, along with advisers from Yale and Emory universities and the College of William and Mary.

Ms. Arnold, who also works as a secretary for the African studies department at Fordham, said it was entirely dependent upon word of mouth for contributions. Researchers with reams of information may find the system somewhat unwieldy since it requires data to be inputted piece by piece.

Still, the news of the database excited preservationists like Lisa Martin Sanders for its potential. Two years ago, Ms. Sanders rediscovered and began to rehabilitate a rundown cemetery where her ancestors and an estimated 1,500 other slaves were buried in Sanford, N.C., now called the Black Heritage Community Cemetery. She’s working on her next.

“I thought it was awfully sad that people can get thrown away,” she said. “If we have somewhere we can go and actually look and research this information, we can better understand who we are,” she added. “If we lose that, where are we?”

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Queens Central Library Opens Wider

It’s a mystery at first. The youngsters on the computers in the children’s center adjoining the Queens Central Library appear to be squatting on floor cushions, but their legs are nowhere to be seen. In a moment, it grows clear. They’re seated at shallow wells scooped into the floor so there’s no danger of falling off their chairs.

Building Blocks

How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.

It’s one of many signs that the 47-year-old Queens Central Library in Jamaica is being transformed into a more appealing space that tries to accommodate the many ways in which patrons, including the smallest ones, now use libraries.

In 2011, the adjoining Children’s Library Discovery Center opened at Merrick Boulevard and 90th Avenue. This is a new building by Juergen Riehm of 1100 Architect and the Lee H. Skolnick Architecture and Design Partnership.

Today, the transformation is occurring at the two-story central building itself. In January, the mayoral Design Commission approved the latest phase, which includes eliminating the dark recessed entryway by building a new glass wall almost flush to the building line. Designed by the architecture firm Gensler, this change will increase floor space in the front lobby, which is to get a new customer service desk. The library is also to get a new cafe, a gift shop and a teenage center. The computer center has grown to about 100 stations, 70 for the general public and 30 for training and instructional use. There are new job information and consumer health reference areas; an expanded media center, where DVDs and other playable media can be found; and a quiet room. (It’s come to this.)

“A public library based in the community has a wonderful opportunity in the future,” said Thomas W. Galante, president and chief executive of the 62-library Queens system, which is independent of the Brooklyn Public Library and the New York Public Library. By that, he meant a library that also supported development of the work force, fostered adult literacy, offered help for immigrants seeking citizenship, increased the public’s access to Web-based resources and provided a safe haven for teenagers.

“We’re a social place, too,” Mr. Galante said. “It’s a place where people are learning from each other.”

What of the physical books? They’re still present, about 1.34 million of them. But there are far fewer in the open stacks on the first floor, down to 165,000 volumes from 300,000. The others were moved to the two stack levels below ground and are available on 20 minutes’ notice. Mr. Galante said this transfer opened “more people places” on the first floor.

The $9.8 million renovation project at the Central Library is part of an overall 10-year, $290 million systemwide expansion and modernization, financed chiefly by $98 million from the office of the borough president, Helen Marshall; $83.5 million from the Queens members of the City Council; and $45.3 million from the office of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

The current Central Library is a product of its era. In the mid-1960s, instead of renovating the existing library at 89-14 Parsons Boulevard, officials chose to build an entirely new structure at 89-11 Merrick Boulevard, six blocks east. The older building was recycled as a courthouse. Its facade has since been incorporated into an apartment building called the Moda.

The new library modeled itself — proudly — on a supermarket. Everything was on one sprawling floor, with high-demand items toward the back, to lure patrons through as many aisles as possible. Books were shelved by broad topics, rather than strictly by Dewey Decimal Classification, and they moved through the building on conveyor belts. “This is the most modern example of functional library building,” Harold W. Tucker, the chief librarian, happily told The New York Times in 1966.

Design credit went to a hybrid practice known as Kiff, Colean, Voss & Souder, Architects-The Office of York & Sawyer. While perpetuating great names of early 20th century architecture, York & Sawyer, the firm worked in the spartan, stripped-down vocabulary of the time. Let’s just say that the Queens Central Library did not simply function like a supermarket.

Among the few animating touches were two wall-mounted reliefs by the sculptor Milton Hebald, whose other works included the enormous “Zodiac Screen” at the Pan American World Airways terminal at Kennedy International Airport (now removed); and bronze figures based on “The Tempest” and “Romeo and Juliet,” outside the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. He also created a seated figure of a pensive James Joyce for Joyce’s grave in Zurich.

Mr. Hebald’s sculptures will remain, as will most all of the features of the 1960s design, although a door will be added into a vestibule where patrons can drop off books, DVDs and other borrowed material around the clock, in another bow to the new age.

Queens Central Library Opens in 1966 (PDF)

Queens Central Library Opens in 1966 (Text)

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The View of New York Under an Umbrella

Dear Diary:

This New England winter, I found photos from a weekend trip to New York several years ago when I traveled there to see a show.

Before the show, I went for a long walk, even though it had begun to rain. I quickly learned that you meet more people in the rain. Carrying a massive golf umbrella, I discovered many new friends at every street corner. No one spoke at first; they simply converged.

I spied a young gentleman coming out of church uptown (in a downpour, at this point) who had gotten caught in the rain in his Sunday best. He could do nothing, and simply stopped and started laughing. But when our eyes met, he suddenly straightened up, brushed off the water as best he could, and dashed for cover.

I crossed the street and followed a crowd of a dozen or so well-armed umbrella folk, all marching in the same direction – except for a mom and her half-pint coming the other way. Half-Pint carried her own umbrella, and cleared a path through the dozen simply by holding firm and letting her umbrella make the way. I heard many “oohs” and “ouches” before she came into view. Perhaps because I was last and had time to step away, I found myself simply standing there, laughing.

The show I’d gone to see was a comedy, but I have to say that New York provides enough comic moments just by being itself.


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