African Burial Ground National Monument: 2013 New York Stories 2

In 1991, I was living in New York when the burial place of Africans who were enslaved and free were discovered at what is now 290 Broadway in downtown Manhattan. Their remains were buried from the late 1600’s to the 1794. It is only recently in 2013 that I am fully understanding and appreciating the African Burial Ground in the context of a long history of Africans and people of African descent . . . my history . . . our history.

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The National Parks Service offers a broad experience at the monument including an indoor video and exhibition at the museum, and an outdoor memorial.

Some of the focus is on the spiritual implications of a people in bondage holding onto their humanity by burying loved ones in the midst of oppression and violence. Only humans bury their dead. The curators offer insightful social and cultural context to the lives of people of African descent including how some labored and family lives.

Learn more reading Audrey Peterman’s “African Burial Ground National Monument: Peace at Last” in Our True Nature: Finding a Zest of Life in the National Park System.

Photos by Dianne Glave

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Kentucky, African Americans & the Environment

Kentucky has a long history of African Americans and the environment. Much like other states in the South, Kentucky benefited from the labor of enslaved people of African descent.

Kentucky!

At the peak of tobacco and hemp production, African Americans comprised 25% of the population, many of whom were enslaved in the state. So basically, the historical economy of early Kentucky was built on the labor of African Americans. Kentucky is a reflection of how the South benefited from agricultural production from the 17th century.

From a more personal perspective, George Henderson described what he experienced in enslavement. Henderson was born on May, 10th 1860, five years before the end of the Civil War and emancipation in Woodford County, Kentucky. George said,

Some boy would ring a great big bell, called the “farm bell” around sunrise. Some went to the stables to look after the horses and mules. Plowing was done with a yoke or oxen. The horses were used for carriages and to ride. My work was pulling weeds, feeding chickens, and helping to take care of the pigs. (Interview with George Henderson, WPA Slave Narratives: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11920/11920-h/11920-h.htm#HendersonGeorge)

George Washington Carver

Yes, enslaved African American children worked rather than go to school. As part of the slave codes, it was against the law for any African American who was enslaved to learn to read and write.

After this period of enslavement, African Americans served in agricultural agencies in Kentucky. One was Arp C. Burnette. He was the first African American to work for the University of Kentucky Agricultural Extension Service–today the Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA)–from 1919 to 1944. We often hear about George Washington Carver’s role in the Extension Service but there were many others like Burnette who have not be heralded for their hard work. Since the US was still segregated during this period, he only worked with African Americans. He started a Negro 4-H for the youth and was instrumental in increasing the number of cattle raised by African Americans in Kentucky. (University of Kentucky Libraries: http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/nkaa/record.php?note_id=2023)

Even with contributions of African Americans in Kentucky, segregation remained a terrible barrier to African Americans during the first half of the 20th Century. The state of Kentucky established a Public Accommodations Statue in 1956 segregating parks and playgrounds. This translated into to separate and unequal for African Americans in the outdoors. Such statutes and laws began to be dismantled in the 1950s with the Civil Rights movement but lingered through the 1970’s. (Jim Crow Laws: Kentucky: http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/scripts/jimcrow/insidesouth.cgi?state=Kentucky)

Today, African Americans can enjoy local, state, and national parks across the country. In Lexington, Kentucky, go visit Jacobson Park where in 2011 everyone has access. Let’s not let the taint of segregation, stop people of color from experiencing the outdoors, sitting under a tree, rafting on a river, and swimming in a lake.

Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro:” An Environmental Perspective

I am blessed with the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” described in The Declaration of Independence. Thanks to race leaders like Frederick Douglass, I am free to spend my Fourth of July weekend any way I please: sitting in Overton Park in Memphis, typing my thoughts on my computer; going to the hair salon; visiting Graceland, walking down Beale Street, and more. I am black and a I am woman. I am free.  

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass gave his famous “The Meaning of the July Fourth for the Negro Speech” on July 5, 1852 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. As a backdrop to his speech, the United States was decades beyond the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence during the 18th century. Yet African Americans were still enslaved, most in the American South until 1865 at the end of the Civil War. Most were neither free in the South or independent even in the North with the threat of being captured, forcibly relocated, and enslaved in the South. This was the setting for Douglass’ famous speech that decried enslavement and in racial equality.   

He introduced the speech, saying, “He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.” (Douglass)    

Later in the speech, Douglass quoted the bible pointing to nature, imagery, and place: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” (Douglass)    

Quoting scripture, he referenced two places, Babylon and Jerusalem, two very different places with different meanings. Babylonian conquest meant subjugation of the Hebrews much like enslavement in the American South. Returning to Zion literally represented freedom and home for the Hebrews; in much the same way Jerusalem was freedom for people of African descent where whites subjugated and oppressed African Americans.  

The imagery of harps hanging in the willows reinforced the focus on place. Willows represented a strength in the midst of sorrow in Babylon. The harps or the music from the harps represented beauty even in the lament, something to cling to in the midst of sorrow as the Babylonians forced Israelites to leave Jerusalem. The metaphors ring true for both the Hebrews and African Americans.    

Douglass was hopeful towards the end of his speech: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. “’The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.” (Douglass) Enslavement of the Hebrews and enslavement had to end!    

I believe much work remains as racial inequality, and that includes environmental racism, still exists in the United States. Yet and still, I am grateful for all Frederick Douglass sacrificed for each American, black or white, for the sake of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” more than a century ago.  

Image From http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/frdo/visionary.html