African Burial Ground National Monument at Duane Street and African Burial Ground Way (Elk Street) in the Civic Center district of Lower Manhattan, New York City preserves a site containing the remains of more than 400 Africans buried during the late 17th and 18th centuries in a portion of what was the largest colonial-era cemetery for people of African descent, some free, most enslaved. Historians estimate there may have been 15,000–20,000 burials in what was called the "Negroes Burial Ground" in the 1700s. The site's excavation and study was called "the most important historic urban archeological project in the United States."
The discovery highlighted the forgotten history of African slaves in colonial and federal New York City, who were integral to its development. By the American Revolutionary War, they constituted nearly a quarter of the population in the city, which had the second largest number of slaves in the nation after Charleston, South Carolina. Scholars and African-American civic activists joined to publicize the importance of the site and lobby for its preservation. In 1993 the site was designated a National Historic Landmark and in 2006 a National Monument.
In 2003 Congress appropriated funds for a memorial at the site and directed redesign of the federal building to allow for this. A design competition attracted more than 60 proposals for a design. The memorial was dedicated in 2007 to commemorate the role of Africans and African Americans in colonial and federal New York City, and in United States history. A visitor center opened in 2010 to provide interpretation of the site and African-American history in New York.
In consultation with stakeholders, GSA ran a design competition for the site memorial, which attracted 60 proposals. The winning memorial design by Rodney Leon in partnership with Nicole Hollant-Denis, AARRIS Architects, was chosen in June 2004. The work was completed and dedicated on October 5, 2007.
The memorial design for the 25-foot (7.6 m) granite monument features a map of the Atlantic area within the "Circle of Diaspora" in reference to the Middle Passage, by which slaves were transported from Africa to North America. It is built of stone of South Africa and of North America, to symbolize the two worlds coming together. The Door of Return, refers to "The Door of No Return", a name given to slave ports on the coast of West Africa, from which so many people were transported, never to see their homeland again. The memorial is designed to reconnect ethnic African Americans to their ancestors' origins.
On February 27, 2006, President George W. Bush signed a proclamation designating the burial site as the 123rd National Monument.It was transferred to the operating jurisdiction of the National Park Service as its 390th unit. The NPS runs the visitors center built in 2010 and arranges for various cultural exhibitions and events at the site throughout the year. The memorial was dedicated in 2007 in a ceremony presided by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the poet Maya Angelou.As part of the dedication ceremonies, the city officially renamed Elk Street as African Burial Ground Way.
In February 2010, a visitor center for the African Burial Ground National Monument opened in the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway, which was built over part of the archaeological site. The visitor center includes a permanent exhibit, “Reclaiming Our History,” on the significance of the burial site. Created by Amaze Design, it features a life-sized tableau by Studio EIS depicting a dual funeral for an adult and child. Other parts of the exhibit explore the work life of Africans in early New York and connection to national history, as well as the late 20th-century community success in preserving the burial ground. The visitor center includes a 40-person theater and a shop.