Tony Platt: Remembering History's Shame

Roundup: Historians' Take

[I'm recently retired from some 40 years of full-time teaching American history, public policy, and social sciences at University of Chicago (1966-1968), Berkeley (1968-1977), and California State University, Sacramento (1977-2007). I completed an undergraduate degree at Oxford University (1960-1963) and received my doctorate from Berkeley in 1966.]

While on a trip to the east coast from my home in Berkeley I get the news that yet another Native American site on California's northwest coast has been vandalized.

Between the 1780s - when Thomas Jefferson dug up a huge cemetery containing a thousand human remains - and the 1970s, when the Red Power movement began to put amateur and professional archaeologists on the defensive, the discovery and excavation of native skeletons was promoted as good sport, entrepreneurial initiative, and sound science. Minimally 600,000, and maybe as many as one million, graves were excavated. Millions of artifacts from graves ended up in museums, private collections, and cabinets of curiosities, while body parts were sent to universities for scientific analysis.

The looting of graves and illegal trading in native artifacts for profit continue, despite an array of local, state, and federal laws. Of twenty-four people currently under indictment in Utah for trading in artifacts worth millions of dollars, two have committed suicide, as has the federal government's key witness, Ted Gardiner, who told his son about the time "diggers dug up a human skull and just tossed it aside. He saw a lot of things that disgusted him." On the coast of northern California, where I spend a great deal of time, small-fry looters regularly track down and dig up Yurok, Tolowa, and Wiyot sites, hoping to strike it rich.

The legacy of two centuries of grave looting is a deep sense of resentment among Native American organizations that has only been slightly alleviated by the efforts of universities, museums, and government during the last twenty years to account for and, in some cases, repatriate human remains and funerary artifacts. The U. S. Senate's recent apology for "ill-conceived policies" and Obama's face-to-face meeting with representatives of the country's 564 federally recognized tribes - "I get it, I'm on your side," said the president - is a good beginning at reconciliation.

But most tribes still do not feel that they can publicly acknowledge sites of burial grounds for fear of looting, and the public record is mostly silent on the history of desecration. Where are the memorials, monuments, and ceremonies witnessing this tragic past? New York offers a possible model.

The Negros Buriel Ground, as it was called in colonial New Amsterdam in the 17th and 18th centuries, was located outside the city's palisades in a few acres of marshy, godforsaken land. Here, before sundown, Africans and their descendants were allowed to bury their dead - perhaps as many as 15,000. By 1991, this same piece of land was now prime real estate in Lower Manhattan, surrounded by corporate offices and city hall, close to Ground Zero, the perfect site for the new federal building at 290 Broadway. The huge 30-story building was opened in 1994, but its original conception was significantly changed following the unearthing of human remains during the early phase of construction.

Today, the federal building is symbolically overshadowed by its relatively small neighbor, the African Burial Ground National Monument that was officially opened to the public on 5 October 2007. It's possible to visit the federal building without walking past or seeing the monument. But with the recent opening (27 February 2010) of the monument's companion Visitor Center on the ground floor of the federal building, it's now almost impossible to ignore the presence of a cemetery of slaves in the heartland of capitalism.

With public memorials to tragedies past, it's very difficult to integrate heart and head. Typically, as in the case of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D. C. or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, they propel us into the "cool sepulcher of the past," as Walter Benjamin put it, and provide an opportunity for sorrowful reflection. When museums try to make us feel and think, as in the case of the Holocaust Museum in the nation's capital, they typically fail: the flood of feelings crowds out thoughtful engagement.

The African Burial Ground in New York manages to integrate our senses and straddle the usual divide between affect and cognition. You can pay your respects to the dead by entering the memorial, marked by a hefty, tomb-like granite structure, then walking into a memorial circle, or standing next to seven raised grassy mounds and seven newly planted trees where the remains of 419 bodies have been re-interred. President Bush conferred upon the memorial the status of a National Monument in February 2006. This means that it's taken seriously: on the day that I visited the memorial last week, a National Parks ranger was on duty and a Homeland Security van parked out front.

The nearby Visitor Center is geared up for teaching a steady stream of schoolchildren, community groups, and tourists. Here, we learn - as we did last year at the New York Historical Society's groundbreaking exhibitions - about the importance of slavery to New York's economic development and that the trading in human beings was a national, not Southern tragedy. There is also detailed information about the daily lives of Africans living in New York hundreds of years ago, the result of scientific analysis of human remains made by anthropologist Michael Blakey and colleagues at Howard University. Despite longstanding suspicion by African American organizations towards scientists - remember the Tuskegee experiment? - a collaborative and mutually respectful relationship was forged in this case. There's hope, then, for partnerships between Native Americans and anthropologists, despite the deep wedge of distrust.

The Visitor Center includes considerable information about the history of the memorial, in particular the role played by protest in shaping its development and outcome: how community organizations forced Congress to put a halt to excavations; how Mayor Dinkins established a Blue Ribbon committee to propose models of remembrance; how hundreds of community volunteers were trained to teach visitors about the site's history; how the design of the memorial was a public process; and how the transportation from Washington, D. C. and re-interment of human remains in New York was marked by ceremonies of formal dignity. "You may bury me in the bottom of Manhattan," said Maya Angelou at one such ceremony. "I will rise. My people will get me out. I will rise out of the huts of history's shame."

This visit to the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York leaves me hopeful that it's possible to create memorials that are dignified and educational, and that science can enhance the humanity of history. But as I head back to California to work with a coalition to protect Yurok cultural legacies on the northwest coast, I'm also mindful that it took almost twenty years of struggle and political organizing to begin to do justice to New York's enslaved past.

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