I was excited to find a book about Manhattan’s African Burial Ground, which I visited in May 2002. At that time, it was merely a patch of grass inside a chain-link fence with an historic plaque, not much of a remembrance for the thousands of Africans, slaves and free, who were interred there. Of course, after 9/11, commemorating the long-dead became less of a priority. Thankfully, the site has been made right at last.
The subtitle of this book is “The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground.” Unfortunately, when the book was published in 1998, not much seems to have been known about the graveyard. Perhaps Howard University was still performing the analyses of the 400 bodies that were recovered, but only a handful of the reclaimed bodies are discussed here. Maybe the archaeologists were busy writing their papers for other publications, but there’s not much information about what they found. What’s there is fascinating, but scant.
Apparently there are few historical documents pertaining to the space, other than old maps. The authors pad out the book with history lessons drawn from legal records about the treatment and lives of the Africans brought to the colony by the Dutch, then the British, then the new-fledged Americans. The history was new to me, but not nearly as interesting as the contents of the graveyard — for which I’d purchased the book.
My hope is that there will be a new book available when I revisit the African Burial Ground (now a national monument) this summer.
74 Trinity Place (Broadway at Wall Street)
New York, NY 10006 Founded: prior to 1697 Number of interments: Tens of thousands, according to The Graveyard Shift Open: Weekdays 7 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday and Holidays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Sundays from 7 a.m. to 3.
One of the oldest surviving graveyards in Manhattan is Trinity Churchyard, at the head of Wall Street. The original New Yorkers used the area north of the church as a graveyard even before the King of England granted land to the parish in 1697. Three centuries later, skyscrapers overshadow the spire of the old church and its beautiful old tombstones.
The most famous permanent resident of Trinity Churchyard is Alexander Hamilton, who served as George Washington’s aide-de-camp, commanded troops at the Battle of Yorktown, became the first Secretary of the Treasury and conceived a plan to pay off the debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. He died in 1804 died after a duel with then-Vice President Aaron Burr.
The original monument still marks Hamilton’s grave, erected by the Vestrymen of Trinity Church, who I’m sure were thrilled to score such an illustrious addition to their churchyard. Hamilton’s epitaph reads, “The Corporation of Trinity Church Has erected this Monument In Testimony of their Respect For The Patriot of incorruptible Integrity, The Soldier of approved Valor, the Statesman of consummate Wisdom, Whose Talents and Virtues will be admired By Grateful Posterity Long after this Marble shall have mouldered into Dust.”
Other historic personages buried in the old churchyard were not immediately celebrated by their contemporaries. Francis Lewis, the only signer of the Declaration of Independence buried on Manhattan Island, lies in Trinity Churchyard somewhere. Trinity’s Register of Burials lists him, without noting the location of his grave. Instead, he’s remembered by a bronze plaque placed near the church in 1947 by the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration. Also buried here is Robert Fulton, a painter who developed the first practical steamboat as well as a submarine for use in torpedo attack. In 1901, eighty-six years after Fulton’s death, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers erected a monument to him.
Remembered at the time of his death was William Bradford, the first man in the Colonies to assert the freedom of the press. On his 200th birthday in 1863, an exact copy replaced his original gravestone at the behest of the New York Historical Society. That same pride in the city’s history shielded Trinity Churchyard’s priceless real estate from changes that might have engulfed it.
You can pick up a cemetery guide inside the church. The church encourages people to eat their lunches on the cemetery benches and to come inside for a service or to see the crypt. A schedule of events, including concerts or readings of Shakespeare, is online here.
After Mason and I crossed Broadway, we stumbled upon a memorial to the firefighters lost when the World Trade Center collapsed. Bright chains of origami cranes decorated the fence around an old brown church. Beside them hung tattered “missing person” flyers. Amongst the ephemera fluttered faded navy blue T-shirts, each silk-screened with a different fire company badge. My eyes stung, burned by the eloquence of those empty shirts.
Around the corner, we peered through the big iron fence into the churchyard. In the afternoon light, the grass glowed intensely green. Dense trees raised a verdant canopy above the old stones. I longed for the sense of peace inside, but a big padlock held the fence closed.
I wound my fingers through the bars and gazed at the old headstones. The graveyard seemed strangely familiar. Not until we came home and I looked through my files did I realize this was St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Churchyard. A photograph clipped from the Boston Herald captured the tranquil cemetery snowed over by debris fallen from the Twin Towers. Papers and torn insulation drifted against the old, irreplaceable monuments. A volunteer in a hazmat suit wheeled the junk out by the wheelbarrow load.
The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries reports that St. Paul’s Churchyard historically had its own ghost. After Shakespearean actor George Frederick Cooke died destitute in 1812, his skull was allegedly sold to pay his bills. Rumor says that he appeared, posthumously, as Yorick in Hamlet. His ghost prowled amongst the stones, seeking his head.
Unable to enter the church or the cemetery, Mason and I moved on. Another block farther along, a huge destruction zone gaped. Dust stirred up by the earthmovers hung motionless in the air. Entirely by accident, we’d reached Ground Zero.
Mason huddled against a nearby skyscraper to look furtively into our guidebook. “The subway station should be right here,” he insisted.
Should be, but was gone. Our guidebook had been published pre-9/11. The station we wanted had vanished into the crater of the World Trade Center.
Mason recovered sooner than I could. He led me up the shadowy canyon of a street between skyscrapers to another subway station. From there, we had an easy ride uptown.
Collapsed on the subway seat, I had the same sick feeling that came over me outside the Genbaku Domu in Hiroshima. The realization that thousands of people had shrieked in the face of death — right where I’d stood — nearly reduced me to tears. I’d wanted to visit the World Trade Center site, pay my respects, but not like this. Not by chance.
Looks like I’ll have to wait until September 2012 to visit the museum dedicated to the tragedy. The monument opens this weekend: http://www.911memorial.org/
I find the quote which adorns the exterior of Grant’s tomb refreshing. “Let us have peace” are the words which closed the President’s memoirs. For a man who served his country in war, his final wish strikes me as beautiful and timely.
My original post about the General Grant National Monument is here.
General Grant National Memorial
West 122nd Street and Riverside Drive
New York, NY 10027
Visitor Services: (212) 666-1640 Completed: 1897 Number of interments: 2 Open: Daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission: free
Despite his service as the eighteenth president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant was better loved for winning the Civil War. During his lifetime, many credited him with ending slavery. His feelings on racism were progressive: during the war, he favored arming “negro” soldiers. Unfortunately, scandal and corruption in his cabinet marred his presidency. After two terms, he retired to bankrupt his family with a series of bad investments. In 1884, he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. Racing against time, he wrote his memoirs, published posthumously by his friend Mark Twain. Twain gave up most of the profits to support Grant’s wife Julia for the rest of her days.
When initially offered burial space by the mayor of New York City, Julia Dent Grant held out for something a little more centrally located, preferably in Central Park. After it became clear that the mausoleum would cost the family nothing — and she could be buried alongside her husband — she accepted the site just west of Harlem.
Grant’s funeral occasioned a huge international outpouring of grief. Sixty thousand people marched in the seven-mile-long funeral parade, including President Grover Cleveland and former Presidents Chester Arthur and Rutherford Hayes. Over a million people lined the parade route. Officers of both the Grand Army of the Republic and the Army of Northern Virginia carried the coffin into a temporary tomb made of brick. For the first six months, Grant’s body had a 24-hour military guard, which was replaced — as time dragged on and the mausoleum languished unfinished — by New York City policemen.
Shortly after Grant’s death, a Grant Monument Association had been established to collect money for the tomb. Richard Greener, the first African American graduate of Harvard University, served as secretary and personally secured many of the subscriptions. When the tomb was finally completed in 1897, 90,000 people had donated $600,000.
The architect’s original plan called for sculptures on the balcony and a grand staircase down to the Hudson River. Six hundred thousand dollars wasn’t enough money for that. The staircase idea was scrapped and decorations on the tomb’s pediment scaled back to reliefs of Federal eagles at each corner. Two muscular young ladies, representing Victory and Peace, sat with their backs to a plaque that read “Let Us Have Peace.” Those words closed Grant’s memoirs.
President Grant’s mausoleum is an enormous edifice composed of 8,000 tons of white granite. It looms 150 feet high, a square box of a building, crowned with a cupola ringed with Doric columns. John Hemenway Duncan, the architect, meant for it to echo the tomb of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome, known more familiarly now as Castle Sant’Angelo. By referencing the splendors of the past, Duncan unleashed a new wave in Federal architecture. Before the completion of Grant’s tomb, national memorials tended toward obelisks: think of the Washington Monument in D.C. Grant’s Tomb laid the foundation for the Lincoln Memorial. In addition to being a true tomb — because Grant’s body lies within — the General Grant National Memorial is the largest mausoleum in North America.
Inside, the dome soars overhead, airy and ornate, hinting at how busy the strong, simple façade might have been if Duncan had gotten his way. Four sculptural pendentives contain allegorical figures representing stages in Grant’s life, including “Civil Life” and “Military Life.” Coffered archways hold up a balcony ringed by columns. Above them, eagles spread their wings. It is Victorian and overblown in a way the outside is not.
In the center of the floor, an opening looks down on the sarcophagi that are the grand final resting places of Ulysses and Julia Dent Grant. Made of red Wisconsin granite in imitation of Napoleon’s sarcophagus at Les Invalides in Paris, the two stone boxes weighed eight and a half tons each.
Until the 1930s, half a million people paid their respects each year. After that, visitors tapered off. Fewer people survived who had participated in — or even remembered — the Civil War. The wars of the twentieth century made war itself seem less grand and glamorous. The Park Service assumed the monument’s care in 1959. Now the site averages one hundred thousand visitors a year. It’s a shame this marvel is not visited more often.
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