MEMORIAL ADVANCES TO MARK BURIAL SITE FOR BLACKS

BRIAN NEARING Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Thursday, June 10, 2004

Although no trace has been found of a Colonial-era cemetery for African-American slaves and freemen on the site of a planned parking garage, the state is moving ahead with plans for a memorial. Last fall, state officials ordered an archaeological study of an area around Sheridan Avenue after they were shown a copy of a 1790 city map that showed a ``Negro Burial Ground'' on a nearby bluff.


But the study, done by Hartgen Archaeological Associates of Rensselaer, has ``not found anything of any substance to determine that there was a burial ground,'' said Jennifer Morris, a spokeswoman for the state Office of General Services.


Morris said the survey was limited to the two-acre site for the 1,500-car garage -- bounded by Sheridan Avenue to the north, Elk Street to the south, South Swan Street to the west and North Hawk Street to the east. ``It was never the intent of the project to determine if the burial ground was there,'' she said, but rather to make sure it was not in the footprint of the garage project.


Justin Divirgilio, a staffer with Hartgen, declined comment on the nature and scope of the survey.


Aaron Mair, a former Arbor Hill activist, alerted state officials to the map, which shows the cemetery on the bluff overlooking what is now Sheridan Hollow. He said he was disappointed that no cemetery remains were found.


``But this is a question of precision, of where the cemetery actually was, not one of doubt as to its existence,'' said Mair, who now lives in Rotterdam. ``The symbolism of having a monument for this is very important. The oldest record of slaves' presence in America outside of New York City is in Albany.''


John Wolcott, an expert on the city's history and architecture, questioned what techniques were used to search for the cemetery. ``It's an obvious question that you have to ask,'' he said. Wolcott said the garage project should be abandoned because of the importance of the cemetery.


Morris said OGS appointed a design committee that is in the ``very preliminary stages'' of discussing what shape a memorial will take.


``What has been agreed to at this point is that it will highlight the accomplishments and pass on the legacy of African-American people by educating those who visit the memorial,'' she said.


The chairman of the memorial advisory committee, Cordell Reaves, coordinator of the Underground Railroad Heritage Trail for state Heritage New York, declined comment.


According to correspondence, the committee has reviewed slavery memorial designs in Manhattan, where a large slave burial ground was discovered in the early 1990s during an office construction project, as well as in Riverbank State Park in Harlem; Amsterdam, Holland; Savannah, Ga.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn.


Other committee members include Stefan Bielinski, a historian with the Colonial Albany Social History Project at the State Museum; Third Ward Council member Michael Brown;, Rev. Leonard Comithier of Macedonia Baptist Church;, Annette Delavallade, owner of Classique Magazine; Nate Davis, of the Haywood Burns Environmental Center; Flonzina Haizlip, director of special events for OGS; Patricia Jordan of the State Museum; and Ruby Hughes, a former county legislator.


The 214-year-old map showing the burial ground was made by the state surveyor general, Simeon DeWitt of Albany.


No records exist on how many people were buried there. Time claimed the cemetery starting sometime after 1801, when a new cemetery with a section for blacks opened in what is now Washington Park.


Blacks were first counted in Albany County in a 1697 provincial census when 23 Africans were listed. A city census in 1714 counted 113 slaves among the 1,128 residents.


Slavery peaked around the first federal Census in 1790, when 572 slaves and 26 freemen lived in the city of 3,498. Slavery was abolished in New York in 1827.


The unearthing of a slave cemetery during a 1991 federal construction project in Manhattan led to more than a decade of controversy. Government officials wanted to exhume bodies and complete an office tower but changed course after protests by African-American leaders.