NEW YORK (AP) – A memorial is opening at the African Burial Ground – more than 200 years since the bodies of slaves and free blacks were buried there and 16 years since their bones were rediscovered.

Starting Friday afternoon, visitors to the site in lower Manhattan will have access to a 20-foot-high chamber of gray stone with water elements running beside it. Next to it, set deeper into the ground, is a circular court, with a map inscribed into the center, and religious and cultural symbols etched into the wall. The rest of the space will be green, with seven grassy mounds where some of the bones were reburied a few years ago.

“This is a resource … to educate the public as fully as we can about the meaning of this site,” Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, said Monday.

Until the burial ground was closed just before 1800, it was the final resting place for tens of thousands of people of African descent, covering several acres on land that was then outside city boundaries.

It was forgotten as the expansion of the city eventually buried it at least 20 feet underground. It was rediscovered in 1991, during excavations for a federal building.

More than 400 sets of remains were discovered, and part of the site was preserved. The remains were studied by scientists and reburied in fall 2003.

The burial ground, most of which still lies deep beneath sidewalks, buildings and streets, was designated a national historic landmark in 1993.

Last year, the site was declared a national monument. National monuments, such as the Statue of Liberty, enjoy a greater level of protection under federal law and generally receive better funding.

Dodson said the memorial, designed by architect Rodney Leon, of Aarris Architects, would help pay homage to the people who were buried there, who he said helped lay the “economic and political and social and cultural foundations of the Americas as we know them.”

Leon said it felt “wonderful” to see his vision go from a model to the real world.

It “feels very satisfying to see the waters flowing,” he said. “I’m very happy that we’ve gotten to this point and we can actually tell people about the African Burial Ground national monument.”

Dodson said he hoped to see the place declared a World Heritage Site. A visitors’ center is in the works and is expected to be open by the end of next year.


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