My Vesey Street, Lower Manhattan

Lower Manhattan

Around 6 months ago I took a trip that I will never forget; I went to New York City for the second time in my life. It was the marker of so many wonderful things – my mum’s 50th birthday, mine and Julian’s engagement and my parents’ 28th wedding anniversary. It’s a city that means a lot to us as a family, and to Julian and I in particular, but I won’t go into that here (it’s not long after lunch and I really don’t want to make you hurl).

While we got to revel in NYC’s manifold delights, and although we got to see most of the things that we hadn’t been able to on our previous trip, I was sad that I still didn’t manage to see it all. For me, the trip was no ordinary jolly. Though I only had five days, I wanted to capitalize on the opportunity to pillage the resources of the NYPL and to seek out the ‘ghosts’ that form the foundation of my American-oriented research project. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture came up trumps here. There were some real gems. It’s a shame that my time was so limited, as just as I found myself having to leave, the material started getting more interesting (and legible!)

Just before I left London I attended a fantastic seminar hosted by Celeste-Marie Bernier at King’s College London as part of their ‘Race Matters’ seminar series. I don’t remember how, but during the Q&A that followed, the African Burial Ground cropped up in conversation. For a long while, I had wanted to visit the national monument in Lower Manhattan, and had hoped to be able to do so on my trip. I considered it necessary in helping me to build an understanding of how burial (and by this I mean white burial of black history and culture) is imbedded in America’s cultural memory. That aside, I wanted to pay homage to a resource that has been so great an inspiration to me over the past year or so that I’ve been following them on twitter.

Two days after I visited the Schomburg, I coursed my way around the Lower East side, hitting up Greenwich Village (via Mark Twain’s house), the Highline and Katz’s Deli. In the afternoon, we split from my parents and headed down to the World Trade Center memorial (after booking tickets to visit Lady Liberty on the following day). When we got to the memorial, we were told by the stewards that we needed to collect our tickets from their gift shop on Vesey Street. Hmmm…Vesey Street, I thought. Like Denmark Vesey – the South Carolina former slave that had plotted a huge slave insurrection in Charleston in the early nineteenth century. Although I have since learned that the street was not named after this particular Vesey, I was a little excited at the prospect of this ghost of the American past wreaking its havoc in the financial district, reminding us what it was all built on: namely, greed and slavery.

Julian and I had planned to visit the African Burial Ground after we had been to the World Trade Center memorial. It would’ve been the last stop – and rightly so – as we had wanted to have some time to reflect as we walked back from the memorial. As we meandered past New York’s municipal building, we took a wrong turn, getting lost down a sidestreet. Eventually, we found the right sidestreet, and the African Burial Ground. When we reached it, however, my heart sank. It had already closed. The sun hadn’t even set yet – it was a beautiful fall day – but we hadn’t realized quite how late it was. I admired the beautiful structure from the outside, and walked around it, reading the information boards that were dotted around at regular intervals. You see, this was, and continues to be, the site of an African burial ground. Beneath the tarmac lie numerous souls, mainly those of slaves who were brought here and buried according to African ritual and custom. It is only in the past decade that the site was declared a national monument. I was deeply upset that I couldn’t go inside and explore the site fully, and this feeling remains with me still.

We left the memorial and walked back round to Brooklyn Bridge and, though my feet were worn after all the traipsing, Julian managed to drag me to the halfway point. It was breathtaking. We stood there and watched the sun go down on a city that was built by the displaced, the lost and the forgotten.

Sadly, I know that however deeply I penetrate, and whatever I shore up and excavate in the process, my understanding will always be limited. Next time, however, I will make the African Burial Ground my first port of call. Until then, I hope Vesey continues to make mischief in Lower Manhattan.




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  1. Nicole Willson says:

    For my tweeps, follow @AFBurialGrndNPS