Lost funding, lost history?
African Burial Ground Project may be cancelled by federal agency
by Charles Brooks
NEW YORK-When hundreds of artifacts and 427 skeletal remains of Africans brought to America were unearthed in May 1991, it threatened the construction of a 34-story, $276 million federal office building in lower Manhattan. In response to intense pressure from the Black community, the General Services Administration (GSA) made a commitment to preserve the historical legacy of this discovery.
But the African Burial Ground Project, which has yielded important evidence about the 18th century slave presence in the north, may shut down by April 30, if additional funding from GSA isn't obtained. The project team, led by Dr. Michael L. Blakey, is locked in a heated dispute with the federal agency.
GSA, which was overseeing office building construction when the burial ground was discovered, argues its paid enough for the project and that further plans of researchers would mean paying for some services already rendered.
In May 1998, GSA rejected Dr. Blakey's budget proposal of $3.6 million, to pay for the last phase of the project and vital DNA and chemical analysis as well as for the cost of administrative functions, which was cut off in August 1998.
GSA says the federal agency will not provide any additional funds for administrative expenses because, "this funding was already in the contract with the original scope of work. You can't expect for the government to pay twice for the same service," said a spokesperson.
GSA says it is willing to grant Dr. Blakey and Howard University additional extensions to complete the contracted scope of work, but at no additional cost to the government. Dr. Blakey contends GSA has been untrustworthy and uncooperative, reneging on earlier agreements on research as well as employing stalling tactics during several phases of the project. "The GSA has consistently demonstrated that they don't want this project. They've shown that they are willing to end the project as soon as possible and prior to the additional expense of high technology work with DNA and chemical analysis," says Dr. Blakey.
He said GSA rejected the DNA research, deeming it "experimental and unusual," even though GSA approved it as part of the original contract in 1993.
"The DNA, chemical analysis and comparative studies will enable the community to learn about the cultures, where people were born and raised. These two methods are the only way to know the origins of the vast majority of remains," Dr. Blakey explained.
"We will provide very important information about New York Africans, but the project will not achieve the cutting edge results that we are capable of doing and planned to do if they continue to refuse to fund the completion of the project. It also means the identities of the vast majority of the people buried there will not be known."
The African Burial Ground Project is regarded as an important discovery and likely to yield knowledge of how Blacks in New York lived and died two centuries ago.
According to GSA, their commitment to the project is evidenced by a $15 million budget. GSA told The Final Call, it has already allotted $5.1 million to Howard University, approximately $4 million for Dr. Wilson's office and $259,000 to the project director for the memorial activities.
Additionally, $3 million has been set aside by Congress for memorial activities as well as another $1 million for miscellaneous costs involved in the project. "Together these constitute an unparalleled level of federal support for any data recovery and mitigation project in the nation," a GSA official added.
Aside from archaeological analysis, the African Burial Ground Project was supposed to offer a permanent venue for education and "memorialization activities," which includes reburial of the remains, two memorials as well as a learning center for the public.
Memorial activities and the learning center were originally scheduled for the year 2000 but have since been delayed due to what GSA describes as a lengthy and detailed procurement process-including a design competition to determine what form the memorial should take. New York State Senator David Paterson told The Final Call, "The fact is there is some discomfort in that the deadline of the year 2000 for reinterment and proper memorialization for the people who lived and was buried there, will not be met. A cultural museum planned has not gotten off the ground. These plans have not come to fruition.
"We thought there would be more publicity and tours for this cultural landmark for the city. The amount of resources that have gone into the reopening of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty has not gone into the African Burial Ground and that is a shame," he said.
Final Call Online Edition
©1999 FCN Publishing
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
External Links are not necessarily endorsed by FCN Publishing