Tag Archives: National Park

Cemetery of the Week #65: the African Burial Ground

The African Burial Ground National Monument

African Burial Ground National Monument
Duane Street, between Broadway and African Burial Ground Way/Elk Street
Manhattan, New York 10007
Telephone: (212) 637-2019
Opened to the public: October 5, 2007
Size: 6.6 acres is the estimated size of the entire burial ground.
Number of Interments: 419 inside the monument. Up to 20,000 may have once been buried in the surrounding area. Undoubtedly, some of them are still there.
Open: The monument is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The visitor center at 290 Broadway is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Both are closed on Federal holidays.
Admission: free. However, you must pass through security to see the visitor center or the exhibits inside the Ted Weiss Federal Building. No food or drink allowed.

As early as 1626, the Dutch imported Africans to work as slaves in New Amsterdam, now known as Manhattan. Technically owned by the Dutch East India Company, these Africans could own property, be baptized, and marry. In 1644, 11 male Africans won their freedom and control of the 100 acres they had been farming, but they had to continue to pay taxes in the form of crops to the Company. Their children were still enslaved.

When the British took over and renamed the island New York in 1664, slave laws became more stringent. As much as a quarter of the colonial workforce was enslaved. Africans were brought from the countries now called Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Mozambique, and Madagascar. They spoke a variety of languages and practiced different religions. Most suffered from malnutrition and injuries from overwork.

There seems to be no surviving record of when the burial ground was first used, but The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries suggests it might date from 1697, when Trinity Church began to prohibit the burial of Africans in its churchyard. Until the late 1700s, the “Negros Buriel Ground” – as it was labeled on maps from the second half of the 18th century – was the only graveyard allowed for the African population. The dead were wrapped in shrouds, placed in wooden coffins, and buried with their heads pointing toward the west. Some were buried with beads or coins on their eyes.

Used as a potter’s field, then serving the British as a graveyard for their prisoners during the Revolutionary War, the burial ground officially closed in 1794. After that, a pottery manufacturer used the area as a dump. In 1792, Chambers Street was cut across the cemetery grounds. In 1795, lots were developed and sold. The burial ground was buried and forgotten.

…Until 1991, when the United States General Services Administration broke ground for a new federal courthouse and office building in Lower Manhattan. The contractors were surprised when they began to come across graves 16 to 25 feet below street level. (I’m told that construction on the island of Manhattan is required to excavate as much weight below as the building above will add, in order not to add too much weight and sink the island. I’m not sure that’s true, but it does explain the seven sub-basements below the World Trade Center.) Once anthropologists took over, they estimated that up to 20,000 Africans were buried in an area that once covered as many as five city blocks.

Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries reported on the struggle between archaeologists who wanted to excavate the anthropological relics with “dental pick and toothbrush” and the government contractors who preferred to use a backhoe. In the end, parts of 419 skeletons went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. for forensic analysis.

Since the burial ground was significant in both regional and national history, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. A tiny fragment of the graveyard was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993. The Graveyard Shift reported in 1998 that the remains were supposed to be returned to New York for reburial under a memorial pavilion on the original site.

When I visited in 2002, I was thrilled to see mention of the African Burial Ground Historic District atop the street signs. For once, it seemed that a forgotten cemetery was getting the respect it deserved. When I finally tracked down the remnant of the burial ground on my last morning in New York City, I found only a painted wooden sign listing a few brief facts inside a chain-link fence around a small patch of grass across from the Javits Federal Building. The reburial ceremony had been derailed by September 11, 2001.

Extra coffin inside the visitor’s center.

Finally in October 2003, a traditional African burial ceremony took place. The remains were placed in coffins handmade in Ghana and accompanied to the monument site by dancers, singers, and priests.

President George W. Bush signed a proclamation in February 2006, which designated the burial site as a National Monument. The U.S. National Park Service took over management of the site at that point. The memorial was finally dedicated in 2007. Maya Angelou and Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke.

Currently, the Park Service mans an Interpretive Center and gift shop on the first floor of the Ted Weiss Federal Building, located at 290 Broadway, between Duane and Reade Streets. This Visitors Center houses a small museum, which discusses the history of Africans in the colonial era. One wall displays archeological photographs of the gravesites. There are the stories the bones can tell us and a record of the grave goods, but everything tangible has been returned to the ground now. “The African Burial Ground,” the Park Service’s brochure says, “is widely acknowledged as one of America’s most significant archeological finds of the 20th century.” It’s good that this museum exists as a record of it.

Next door, inside the Ted Weiss building proper are more exhibits about the burial ground, but I’d visited too late in the day to see them.

Map showing the complete African Burial Ground

Around behind the building lies the African Burial Ground National Monument itself. First you come upon seven small mounds, which cover the vaults in which the remains were placed. The site includes “The Circle of the Diaspora,” a spiral map of the world surrounded by African symbols and religious talismans from many faiths. The final part of the monument is the 24-foot black stone “Ancestral Libation Chamber,” designed by Architect Rodney Leon.

The monument and visitors center are sobering reminders of the sacrifices forced upon the people who built this country. Plan to leave time to meditate or pray at the site.

Useful links:

The National Park Service site

African Burial Ground FAQs

The text of President Bush’s proclamation

Free walking tour of Lower Manhattan called “A Broader View: Exploring the African Presence in Early New York”

GPS coordinates & a photo map via CemeteryRegistry.us

Books I’ve reviewed that reference the African Burial Ground:

Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground

Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries

The Graveyard Shift

If you should visit Yosemite…

Guide to the Yosemite CemeteryGuide to the Yosemite Cemetery by Hank Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Everywhere you go, there’s a cemetery. Case in point: tucked into Yosemite Valley is a tiny graveyard where pioneers, Native Americans, and summer visitors rest in peace. The graveyard is a pretty, peaceful place, despite the 3 million visitors to Yosemite National Park each year.

A visit to the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery is much enhanced by bringing along this little guidebook, which is available from the Visitor Center gift shop. It provides biographies of the Valley’s permanent residents, along with photographs and history lessons. The stories it tells are the best part.

The book also provides a map, so you can stand at the grave as you read about the person beneath your feet.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the perfect souvenir for a trip to Yosemite. My only quibble is that I wish it began with more history of the valley, so that the people who stay there now were put into a wider perspective.

The guidebook is available to view online here. There’s one Amazon listing for a used copy, but it’s overpriced. You could try writing to the Yosemite Visitor Center to see if you can mail order a copy directly.

Cemetery of the Week #60: Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery

View all my reviews

Cemetery of the Week #60: Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery

Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery
aka Yosemite Cemetery
Yosemite Village, Yosemite National Park, California 95389
Telephone: (209) 372-0200
Founded: 1870ish
Size: ¼ acre
Number of interments: Approximately 50
Open: every day

Even armed with the Guide to the Yosemite Cemetery, it’s not easy to find the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery. When I visited, its sign was hidden between parked cars, behind the grocery story and employee housing.

Shadowed by trees and surrounded by a low split-rail fence, most of the graves in the Pioneer Cemetery are marked with plain wooden signboards, painted Park Service brown. Some grave monuments are carved from Yosemite granite.

The earliest grave marker in the cemetery records “A Boy.” Jack Leidig, an old-timer who grew up in the Valley, remembered him as the first person to be buried in the graveyard in 1870. The guidebook theorizes that this area was chosen for a cemetery because the natives had already used it as a burial ground. The Miwoks and Paiutes did not mark their graves, but Native American remains have been uncovered over the years during construction projects in the Valley.

Galen Clark, the first guardian of Yosemite in 1866, selected the granite boulder for his tombstone and planted six trees to shade his grave. Clark lived for 20 years after he’d planned his grave. Four of his trees still survive.

An enormous slab of local granite commemorates the Hutchings family. “Daughter of Yosemite” Gertrude (Cosie) Hutchings Mills was born in the Valley and lived there on and off through her 89 years. She served as postmaster of Yosemite Valley, then as schoolteacher in the village of Wawona, just outside the park’s boundary. When she married, she left Yosemite for 42 years, but after she was widowed in 1941, she returned every summer to work in Yosemite Valley, staying in a tent in Tuolumne Meadows.

Effie’s wooden grave marker

A weathered board marks the grave of Effie Maud Crippen, who died August 31, 1881, “age 14 yrs, 7 mos, 22 days.” “She faltered by the wayside and the angels took her home,” it says. According to the guidebook, Effie moved to Yosemite with her family in 1877. She loved the valley and explored it on horseback, sketching it and describing it in her poetry. A photograph from the year before she died shows her as a serious girl with a thick dark braid, wearing a shin-length skirt and low button-boots. Although hard to imagine, humans had already begun to litter Yosemite by August 1881. Wading in Mirror Lake, Effie stepped on a broken bottle and severed an artery in her foot. The 14-year-old bled to death.

Not far away from Effie’s grave stands a marble marker “In Memory of Albert May, native of Ohio,” who also died in 1881. On his stone, two manly hands clasp, signifying friendship. Marble doesn’t occur inside the boundaries of Yosemite; the Sierra Nevada Mountains are granite. This stone must have been brought in by mule train to mark May’s grave, hinting at the high regard his friend A. G. Black, who erected the stone, must have held for him. May worked for Black as a carpenter and caretaker at Black’s New Sentinel Hotel. Rocks the size of grapefruit ringed the grave itself when I visited.

John Anderson’s monument

John C. Anderson’s marker declares that he “was killed by a horse on the 5th of July 1867.” “Beloved by all,” it says. On his stone, a willow bends under the weight of its own branches like a person burdened by grief. The faded inscription had sunk into the ground.Luckily, the guidebook recorded it:

“Be ye also ready for ye know
not the hour the Son of Man cometh
Dearest Brother, tho had left us,
Here thy loss, we deeply feel.”

When gold fever struck him in 1856, John C. Anderson traveled from Illinois to stake a claim in Yosemite Valley. The gold claim didn’t pan out as richly as the hotel he and three other prospectors built for travelers to Yosemite. He served as the hotel’s coachman on the day he died.

Contradicting the date on the stone, the Mariposa Gazette reported that Anderson had been kicked by a horse and died almost instantly on July 13, 1867. In fact, the authors of the guidebook found many errors in the birth and death dates on the gravestones. Either this was a function of the delay in getting the news to Mariposa to be published or, as in Anderson’s case, the extreme time required to import the marble to mark his grave.

Originally, Anderson had been buried at the foot of the Four-Mile Trail, before being exhumed and moved to the Pioneer Cemetery. Tradition relates that his friends thrust his green locust-wood switch into the ground to mark his first grave. All locust trees in the valley supposedly descend from that green grave marker. I liked the romance of the story, even if the locusts are invasive. Ansel Adams made a beautiful photograph of them shrouded in snow.

In the old days, people had been buried all over the park, where they fell or near places they’d loved. At some point, all the bodies that could be located were gathered together into the graveyard.

Here, in this quiet, tucked-away corner in one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country — averaging three million visitors annually — these permanent residents have become part of the living history forever. Even if their lives had been brief and their deaths agonizing or sad, their spirits had been woven into the beauty of the valley.

A Guide to the Yosemite Cemetery is available to borrow or purchase at the Valley Visitor Center. My review is here.

Yosemite has a second graveyard tucked away in Wawona. Ask at the Wawona Visitor Center for its location.

Useful links:

Walking tour of the Pioneer Cemetery, mirroring the text of the guidebook.

Historic places of Yosemite

List of burials in the Yosemite Pioneer Cemetery

Article from 1961

Other California pioneer cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #13: Mission Dolores Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #25: Ward’s Cemetery, Bodie

Cemetery of the Week #37: Calistoga Pioneer Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #64: Coloma Pioneer Cemetery

Weekly Photo Challenge: Waiting

The chapel inside the USS Arizona Memorial

Once the ferry docked, everyone shuffled down the gangplank onto the blindingly white memorial. Despite the bustle, the monument seemed very peaceful. People kept quiet, moved slowly, were relatively polite to each other — but the men didn’t take off their baseball caps. I didn’t feel they were being consciously disrespectful. They just didn’t know any better.

I kept thinking of my visit to Hiroshima, the bookend of America’s involvement in World War II in the Pacific. Pearl Harbor’s shipyard had been an obvious military target. Victims here had been warriors. Even if war remained undeclared in 1941, the men at Pearl Harbor were trained and ready to fight. They expected to be called upon to give their lives for their country, if not as soon as they did. These sailors were betrayed by their government and their commanders — and, to be fair, by the enemy — but their deaths succinctly served the purpose the American government had in mind: to goad an uncommitted public into war.

Hymns I recognized from my childhood played over the speakers while people filed through the memorial. The structure is basically an enclosed bridge that straddles the sunken battleship. The Arizona rests on the harbor bottom, forty feet down. Its brittle, rusty smokestack protrudes from the water.

As I watched, a rainbow slick of oil drifted from a slowly leaking tank. An older gentleman in military uniform volunteered that the oil had been seeping since the ship went down. “Legend claims,” he said, “that the oil will flow until the last survivor dies.”

The veteran guide continued to speak, telling us how the memorial received some of its funding. When Elvis Presley came to Oahu in 1961 to film Blue Hawaii, he asked to be taken to Pearl Harbor. At the time, only a plaque marked the spot. Presley performed a benefit in Honolulu and donated the proceeds to the memorial fund.

I wondered how native Hawaiians feel about the monument in the bay where their ancient kings had hunted sharks. A million and a half people visit the Arizona Memorial each year, tossing coins and flowers into the water. It struck me as odd that the Park Service worried about the effect of lei strings on wildlife, but not sixty years of seeping oil.

I leaned through one of the rectangular openings in the memorial bridge, gazing down into the water. I’m not sure what I wanted to see to make the experience real. The men below had long been dissolved and carried away by the ocean. No fish could brave the contaminated water. Below me sat rusting steel bought by the American public, paid for with American blood. What did it mean?

An older woman leaned out from the next opening. I watched her methodically strip pink dendrobium orchids from a lei. The flowers dropped the short distance from her fingers to bob on the wavelets. Tears washed her cheeks. I felt I was intruding and turned away.

Dazed, I considered how I don’t have any personal connection to WWII. My parents were infants at the time of the Pearl Harbor bombing. My grandfathers were too old to enlist. Later in the war, my mother’s father moved the family to Virginia to build warships to replace those lost in Hawaii. My mom was too young to recall much of that. My grandparents, who would have remembered, are gone now.

I wandered into the memorial’s chapel in the room farthest from the hubbub of the dock. An angular framework suggested a modernistic stained glass window, except that the panels were open to the sky and water outside. Bright sunlight only emphasized the gloom in the chapel, highlighting a fraction of the 1177 names on the wall.

Tourists balked at going more than halfway into the shrine. They clustered toward the back of the room, clogging the entrance. I wasn’t sure if that was out of respect or from the same atavistic impulse that keeps people out of the front pew in church. I sidled through the crowd to get a picture without baseball caps in it.

On my way back to the ferry, the veteran guide said that scuba had been so new in 1941 that the rescue effort was abandoned quickly, even though they knew people survived inside the sunken ships. Among the tourists he’d spoken to had been a Navy diver. While the man dived that December morning, he heard someone banging for the longest time. They couldn’t rescue him. The banging came less and less frequently until it eventually stopped.

Even though I hadn’t reached the connection I desired, time had come to return to the tour bus. I kept thinking of the Japanese schoolchildren shaking my husband Mason’s hand in the Peace Museum. I wondered if Japanese visitors found such courtesy here.

Cemetery of the Week #44: the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

Cemetery of the Week #44: The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

The USS Arizona Memorial

The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial
No. 1 Arizona Memorial Place
Honolulu, Hawaii 96818
Telephone: (808) 422-3300
Established: 1962
Size: 10 acres
Number of interments: 1102 of the 1177 men who died on the Arizona. Some were cremated at their posts. Others were killed by the concussion and their bodies left in place. Since the 1980s, approximately 30 urns of ashes have been placed in the gun turret by Park Service divers. Other men, who served on the Arizona prior to December 7, 1941, have had their ashes spread over the waters.
Open: The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1. Ferries to the USS Arizona Memorial begin at 8 a.m. and run until 3.
Admission: Tours are free, but timed tickets are given away on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets may all be given away by noon, so come early and be prepared to wait.

There had been talk of turning the shallow harbor on Oahu to American military usage during the Spanish-American War, before the U.S. even annexed Hawaii in 1898. Construction of the Naval base began in 1908. Between Hawaii and Japan stood 4000 miles of open ocean, a distance too narrow for American hawks.

Out through the back of the Visitor Center, a patio surrounded by lush tropical greenery looked out over the placid harbor. The shallow water shone cerulean beneath fleecy white clouds. Park Service plaques held black-and-white photos from 1941, showing where the ships had been moored when the attack began. Gray steel warships literally encircled the island in the center of the harbor.

I know those were different days, but looking back from seven decades on, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have seen this accumulation of war machinery and believed America’s intentions were peaceful. Hostilities might not have been formally declared, but they were clearly anticipated. In reality, the U.S. had long looked forward to quashing Japanese expansionism. Washington simply wanted justification. The Rape of Nanking hadn’t been enough; some small Pacific nation needed to be sacrificed, too.

Men on both sides of the ocean counseled against starting anything. Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto had attended university in the U.S. and spoke fluent English. He understood that Americans might be balked by a surprise defeat, but once battle was joined, the larger country would win. He spoke against provoking the U.S. until his countrymen threatened his life. Cornered, Yamamoto lobbied for a decisive first strike to destroy the fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. With any luck, the U.S. would be completely disarmed until after Japan conquered Asia. By then, it would be too late.

James O. Richardson, the admiral in command of America’s Pacific Fleet, called it suicidal to mass the entire fleet in one place. That warning contradicted what President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to hear, so he replaced the man. Pearl Harbor had seemed safe because its waters were considered too shallow for torpedoes to travel. A submarine net easily blocked the harbor’s narrow mouth. Radar was only just coming into use, but military consensus was that the Japanese wouldn’t dare anything worse than sabotage. To prevent that, Lt. General Walter Short ordered American warplanes parked wing to wing and tail to nose to make them easier to guard. That made them impossible to fly on December 7th, 1941.

If not for a cascade of American ineptitude, the attack on Pearl Harbor might have been no surprise at all. Roosevelt received reports that the Japanese fleet had gone to sea, but his advisers predicted they were headed to the Dutch Indies. The Pacific fleet did not go in search of them.

At 4 a.m. on the morning of the attack, the USS Ward sank a Japanese submarine outside Pearl Harbor. However, its report of the incident was not coded urgent and didn’t get passed on to the men sleeping on ships inside the harbor.

Radar trainees had been supposed to shut down their equipment at 7 a.m., but because they had not yet gone off-duty, they saw a huge mass approaching Oahu. They reported to a lieutenant on the second day of his command. He expected American B-17s from San Francisco. Even though this swarm came from the south rather than east from San Francisco, he advised the radar men not to worry about it.

When a modified torpedo hit the West Virginia, the U.S. fleet was completely undefended. Three minutes later, a bomb cut through the Arizona and ignited its forward magazine. It sank in nine minutes, all hands aboard. America had its catalyst to enter World War II.

Park Rangers accompany the low white ferries for the trip across the water to the memorial. The sound system played “Taps” and informs visitors that the USS Arizona “is considered a cemetery, so keep your voices down.” Other instructions include, “Don’t throw coins from the memorial.” The Park Service still collects coins five times a year, but the metal plummeting through the water damages the old ship. Flowers are OK to cast onto the water, but lei strings should be cut so they don’t endanger wildlife.

The memorial is the most popular tourist destination in Hawaii, with up to 4000 visitors per day. Since 9/11, bags, backpacks, and purses are not allowed in the memorial. They must be left on the tour bus or locked in your trunk.

Useful links:

Events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the attack

The National Park Service site

Pearl Harbor Memorial official site

Names of the dead

A Marine visits Pearl Harbor

Cemetery of the Week #26: Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park

My visit to the Arizona and thoughts about Hiroshima