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Design Selected for African Burial Ground

ED GORDON, host:

In New York City, a designer has been chosen to build a $3 million permanent memorial on the site of a Colonial-era African burial ground. But the controversy that has surrounded the project since its discovery in 1991 continues. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

Mr. STEPHEN PERRY (US General Services Administration): Rodney Leon and his firm, AARRIS Architects.

(Soundbite of applause)

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

A packed room broke into applause as Leon's firm was announced, ending what for some had been a 14-year battle to guarantee that something would always be here to remind people of the 20,000 Africans buried under the southern end of Manhattan. Stephen Perry, administrator for the US General Services Administration, made the announcement.

Mr. PERRY: The memorial that he envisions, we believe, will educate and communicate and commemorate as well as inspire.

KEYES: That was not the attitude of the GSA in 1991. The construction workers building an office building for the agency unearthed part of the huge cemetery that was used from the mid-1600s until about 1794. Despite the bitter protest of community activists, the GSA continued excavating bodies from the site until Congress pressured it to stop in 1992.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: After a 12-year often acrimonious battle between activists and the government over the site's fate, the 419 who had been exhumed were reinterred here in a lavish ceremony. More controversy simmered over the process of choosing a memorial and whether anything should be built on the site. At the press conference, Howard Dodson, director of the Schaumberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, explained why some felt a structure needed to be there.

Mr. HOWARD DODSON (Director, Schaumberg Center for Research in Black Culture): If there is something there that's physical and permanent, it would take a willful act of those who were opposed to it being recognized as a burial ground to take it away physically as opposed to having an open space where, first of all again, we run the risk of it disappearing from public consciousness and something else happening to it.

Mr. OLLIE McLEAN (Committee of the Descendents of the African Ancestral Ground): You're going to need rescuing from your ancestors, my brother. You're going to need rescuing.

Mr. DODSON: You're not the only one who speaks for the Africans.

Ms. McLEAN: You're going to need serious...

KEYES: But some critics attacked Dodson, the GSA and Leon's design, saying that building on the site they fought so hard to preserve is disrespectful. Ollie McLean is with the Committee of the Descendents of the African Ancestral Ground and says there will be protest.

Ms. McLEAN: Nothing was to be build on this ground in perpetuity. This ground was sacred ground. You wouldn't believe it to look at it...

KEYES: Right now, the only preserved portion of a site that spans more than five acres is a small, grassy area less than a block long. There are pockets of brown in the grass, and a few cigarette butts dot the gravel path surrounding the site. At the western end is a patch of earth with a plaque covered in coins, jewelry, bouquets and other offerings. Leon's memorial will be made of gray and gold granite. He says the gold evokes the richness and abundance of West Africa, the original home of many buried at this site. The design includes an ancestral chamber symbolizing the soaring African spirit and an ancestral libation court sloping six feet below street level. Leon says he hopes the memorial will encourage questions.

Mr. RODNEY LEON (AARRIS Architects): We feel that whatever we place here has got to inform and educate the community at large about the meaning of this site. And in addition to that, it should provide the opportunity for one not only to become educated but also to reflect upon the profound significance of the people that were buried here.

KEYES: Leon says none of the remains will be disturbed by the construction. The GSA says it hopes to begin work by the end of the summer. Allison Keyes, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.