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Home arrow Working with Section 106 arrow ACHP Case Digest arrow Summer 2003 arrow New York: Construction of Foley Square U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building, New York
New York: Construction of Foley Square U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building, New York

Agency: General Services Administration

In this controversial case that has garnered much public and political attention, the General Services Administration (GSA) discovered a colonial-era African burial ground during construction of a Federal building in New York City in the early 1990s. An unknown number of skeletal remains were destroyed and removed from the construction site.

Subsequently, GSA amended an existing agreement on the construction project to provide for the excavation, analysis, reburial, memorialization, and interpretation of the portion of the African Burial Ground affected by the construction.

The African Burial Ground, which is an unparalled American resource of international interest, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The reburial of the human remains is scheduled this fall.

While constructing the Foley Square U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building in 1990 in New York’s Lower Manhattan, the General Services Administration uncovered the site of the city’s colonial-era African Burial Ground. As an 18th-century cemetery for enslaved Africans, the site offers a rare glimpse into their lives and experiences, and provides an opportunity to document slavery in the North.

A representative of the Bronx Council on the Arts prepares coffins created in Ghana for the skeletal remains from the African Burial Ground, New York City


A representative of the Bronx Council on the Arts prepares coffins created in Ghana for the skeletal remains from the African Burial Ground, New York, NY. Below: detail of the empty, hand-carved coffins. (staff photos)

Detail of empty African Burial Ground coffins


Unfortunately, an unknown number of skeletal remains were destroyed and removed from the construction site before local archeologists were alerted to the situation and contacted the ACHP.

Local and national protests quickly grew, bringing the project to the attention of Congress. Since GSA had approved a design contract for this project, the consulting parties then had to decide how to respect the human remains in light of the construction project.

Following congressional intervention, in 1991 the ACHP, GSA, and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) amended a Memorandum of Agreement on the treatment of historic properties affected by the Foley Square project that were reached prior to the discovery of the African Burial Ground.

The amended agreement requires GSA to develop and implement a research design for the cemetery and other archeological sites within the project area; sensitively remove all exposed human remains; analyze the disturbed human remains and associated grave artifacts; reinter the human remains and associated grave artifacts; and develop a memorial, interpretative site, and public outreach program. GSA’s implementation of the agreement has progressed slowly; however, public interest in the African Burial Ground has not waned.

In addition, GSA was required to submit quarterly reports to the ACHP and the LPC summarizing actions taken to comply with the amended agreement. In 2001, GSA notified the ACHP of its intent to reinter the human remains and submitted a report on the status of its responsibilities under the terms of the amended agreement.

While continuing to endorse reinterment as soon as possible, the ACHP questioned whether GSA had documented that the terms of the agreement had been satisfactorily fulfilled.

Although GSA had opened an Office of Public Education and Interpretation so that educators and other members of the public can have access to current information about the NHL, the ACHP was concerned with other issues, including the status of the scientific analysis of the artifacts to be reburied with the human remains and GSA’s failure to coordinate with a broad segment of the community.

The National Park Service (NPS) voiced concerns over GSA’s compliance with the research design, especially completion of the artifact analysis. NPS also noted that GSA failed to consult with NPS regarding the implications of the proposed reburial on the overall integrity of the site and its status as an NHL.

GSA postponed the reburial ceremony and agreed to provide the ACHP with a comprehensive status report to demonstrate the agency’s satisfactory compliance with the terms of the amended agreement and approved research design.

GSA administrator Stephen Perry has made the agreement’s completion a priority and has taken steps to complete the technical reports, exterior memorial, interpretative center, and reburial by 2004. Howard University, the scientific consultant, is coordinating the preparation of the required technical reports under a contract with GSA.

Recently, GSA hosted several public meetings on the treatment of the African Burial Ground, during which the local community expressed concern with the agency’s failure to meaningfully involve the public in decisionmaking regarding reburial, the selection of a design for the exterior memorial, and the development of an interpretative center. The ACHP is consulting with GSA to address this issue.

The human remains from the African Burial Ground are currently being prepared for reburial, and GSA has scheduled several days of activities related to their reinterment prior to a community reburial ceremony October 4, 2003.

Staff contacts: Charlene Dwin Vaughn and Laura Henley Dean

Updated November 20, 2003

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