In the summer of 2017, the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force unveiled ten presentation boards in the lobby of the State Office Building on West 125th Street. The boards told an incredible story of a burial ground located on East 126th Street, under the current bus depot, with history dating back to the 1660s ~ and exhumations continuing to this day. This month, The African Burial Ground Task Force updated the community at at CB11 meeting.
In the above map, the location is clearly marked as a red rectangle along the river, with yellow marking the site of the current burial ground. This location is directly underneath a current New York City Transit Authority Bus Garage.
The site takes us back to 1660 when Nieuw Haarlem was charted by Dutch settlers on indigenous land. In the mid-1660s, Low Dutch Reformed Church (predecessor of today’s Elmendorf Reformed Church) was founded. The church had two distinct cemeteries. One for people of European decent, and one for both freed and enslaved people of African decent.
Those buried in the European section of the cemetery were transferred from that location in around 1869. But those of African decent, buried at that location, remained. In time, the ground was leveled and parts of the Harlem River shoreline were filled in.
The site became home to a beer garden and casino from 1885-1917, named Sulzer’s Harlem River Park. From 1917 to 1918, the land became barracks for the 15th New York National Guard Infantry Regiment ~ an all-Black unit. It became home to movie studios from 1918 to 1945, with one of the studios belonging to William Randolph Hearst. From 1945 to 1962, the site was the Third Avenue Railway Company trolley barn. The current New York City Transit Authority bus Garage was built there in 1947. From 1962 to today, it has been the home of the MTA/New York City Transit Authority Bus Garage, as an active facility until 2015, image below.
Taking a walk back in time ~ before the Transit Authority Bus Garage facility became inactive, the African Burial Ground was uncovered during a documentary study for the Willis Avenue Bridge in the early 2000s. Dr. Patricia A. Singletary, Pastor of the current Elmendorf Reformed Church, along with Councilmember for District 8, Melissa Mark-Viverito, formed The Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force (HABGTF) to advocate for a memorial on that site. NYCEDC was later asked to lead the redevelopment project.
Phase 1B of the archeological investigation uncovered more than 140 disarticulated human bones or bone fragments on the site. The Task Force got to work, putting on paper a projected vision in a 2017 Points of Agreement letter. In the letter, the Task Force focused on five areas: Establishing a permanent outdoor memorial and cultural center to honor and commemorate the HABG’s history and those who were buried there; Develop a mix of uses at that location, including mixed income affordable housing and job-creating commercial uses; Enhance the streetscape and pedestrian connections to the surrounding neighborhood. (The East River Waterfront Esplanade and Piers Project ~ The Harlem Greenway ~ abuts this site); included in their focus would be possible ways to support the cost of construction and operation of the memorial and cultural center; Finally, the inclusion of housing which would be 80% affordable, along with commercial and retail space ~ the outdoor memorial, cultural center and a community facility.
This brings us to the presentation boards in the lobby of the State Office Building in 2017, where we first became aware of the project. This public presentation invited the community to learn about the historic site, and the efforts currently underway to protect and preserve it.
It also was the year that the Harlem African Burial Ground site was placed on both the National and State Register of Historic Places.
In 2019, the exhibition Reclaiming History, Reinvesting in East Harlem: The Harlem African Burial Ground Memorial Project opened to the public at La Marqueta. The exhibition was an update on the progress of the Task Force, which included a panel discussion by the exhibition sponsors, The Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force, Council Member Diana Ayala, NYCEDC, and NYC Cultural Affairs.
The East Harlem site is City-owned, as opposed to the African Burial Ground located downtown at 290 Broadway, which is Federal land.
This pictorial exhibition and timeline presented by The Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force showcased the past, present, and future of the Harlem African Burial Ground, bringing a new memorial and cultural center to East Harlem, and honoring the historic Harlem African Burial Ground, as well as adding affordable housing.
The African Burial Ground Task force is looking ahead with renderings of what they hope to achieve in the following four images taken from their website (below).
A Request for an Expression of Interest (RFEI) was originally sent out. However, due to new archeological findings, including remains, the RFEI was cancelled until work on the burial site is complete, at which time a cultural developer will be added to the Team.
These four renderings (above and below) would preserve the original cemetery footprint, and allow visitors to visit the historic and sacred space.
The renderings allow for open space for the community, bordered by a communal garden.
At night, fiber optic cables emanating from light boxes at the periphery of the cemetery footprint would create points of light, intended to embody the soul of every person interred. Adjacent to the outdoor space would be an education and cultural center.
Scroll through the Harlem African Burial Ground Pitch Book to view the historic and site analysis and design concepts including beautiful bronze sculptural reliefs depicting African slaves and Native Americans,
Read about three generations of just one family in the African Burial Ground in Harlem, along with archival records .
The site of The African Burial Ground is located at 2660 Second Avenue at 126th Street in East Harlem. This site is two short block away from the historic mural Crack is Wack by Keith Haring, located on the handball courted on 128th Street and Harlem River Drive.
When we’re there, we can’t miss an opportunity to visit one of our favorite shops ~ Demolition Depot ~ displaced from East 125th Street in East Harlem due to the coming (not in my lifetime) of the Second Avenue Subway, now located across the street from the site of the African Burial Ground, at 159-161 East 126th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues.
Did you know that remains of early New Yorkers were discovered in Washington Square Park as recently as 2021? This was not the only Park. Read more about the history of some of our favorite Parks Here.