In 1991, a $275 million project began for the construction of a federal office building at 290 Broadway in the Civic Center section of Lower Manhattan. In October of that year, the General Services Administration announced that intact burials from the largest colonial-era cemetery for freed and enslaved Africans had been discovered during excavations. Though an Environmental Impact Statement was commissioned upon purchase of the site, archaeological surveys predicted no remains would be found, due to the long history of development in the area.
As the GSA attempted construction and excavation at the same time, the African-American community felt the graves were not receiving proper respect, and the area required a more thorough archaeological study, as well as a plan to protect the remains.
In 1992, they halted construction, and a fund was set up to handle further excavations. In total, 420 burials were found, but historians estimate 15,000 to 20,000 were buried during the 1700s, in what was called the "Negroes Burial Ground", which is New York's earliest known African-American cemetery.
While the site became a National Historic Landmark in 1993, and the Ted Weiss Federal Building was soon finished, an area was set aside to rebury the remains. Congress approved the funds for a memorial in 2003, and it was made a National Monument in 2006, though the monument was not completed until 2007.
Made of granite, from South Africa and the United States to symbolize both coming together, the 25 ft (8 m) shrine holds, within an area named the "Circle of Diaspora", a map of the Atlantic ocean known as the Middle Passage, where slaves were transported from Africa to North America. One may enter the circle via the Ancestral Libation Chamber, through "The Door of Return", which is in reference to "The Door of No Return" (a name given to West African ports involved in the slave trade). The mounds located before the monument's door are where the remains were reinterred .
In 2010, a museum was opened inside the Ted Weiss Federal Building, to give visitors a history of the finds, as well as of the site. Within the permanent exhibit, "Reclaiming Our History", Amaze Design and Studio EIS created a life-size depiction of African immigrants performing a funeral for an adult and child. There is also a wall with all 420 photos of the remains found...
...as well as artifacts of those inhumed, including money, jewelry, clothing and tools, plus a replica of the wooden Ghana reburial coffins where the deceased were re-entombed.
Once done with your visit there, you can walk a few blocks over, just behind 1 Police Plaza, to also see the last remnant of the Rhinelader Sugar House that was believed to have once been used as a prison by British forces during the American Revolutionary War.
Just off Duane Street, the window is embedded into a wall of a small utility building behind the New York Police Department Headquarters, and dates to 1763. The sugar shack / sap house was replaced by an eleven-storey loft building called Rhinelander Building in 1892. That multi-unit home was demolished in 1968 to make way for the NYPD HQ.
If you'd like to see more of the old Rhinelader Sugar House you'll have to visit Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, which holds a large section of the building, but I'm saving more on that stop for another post.