Acts of Hate Highlight Architecture's Role in Framing History
Earlier this month, a racist message was scrawled on a sign at the African Burial Ground National Monument (ABG) in lower Manhattan. Occurring just days after the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and the murders of two black people in a Kentucky supermarket, the vandal’s violent message (“kill” followed by a racist slur), defacing the country’s largest national monument dedicated to African people, underscores the United States’ ongoing struggle with racism and bigotry. In mid-November, the FBI revealed that some 7,000 hate crimes—about 60 percent of which were motivated by the victim’s race, and 20 percent by religion—were reported in 2017, representing a 17 percent increase from the year before.
“These are the kind of things that are on people’s minds right now, and that’s because of the atmosphere that’s been created,” said City Council member Jumaane Williams at a news conference after the ABG incident. “Cleaning it off doesn’t erase the pain, and it doesn’t erase what’s happening.” Given the public nature of the sacred site (ABG isn’t just a national monument—it’s also a burial ground), the crime, and the community response that followed, has served as an important reminder of the role architecture should play in shaping historical narratives and healing the wounds of the past.
“The memorial was designed as a place of remembrance, but it was also designed as a place of reconciliation and gathering,” says Rodney Leon, project architect of the memorial, dedicated in 2007. In the decade since Leon’s memorial opened to the public, Leon has created other projects that honor the history of people of African descent in America, including the Ark of Return, a memorial to the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
The ABG site, which today is the resting place for the remains of more than 400 free Africans and slaves from the colonial period, was discovered in 1991 during the construction of a federal office building. Activists immediately rallied to preserve the historic site—which is among the oldest and largest African burial grounds in the nation, with some remains dating back to the 17th century—by writing letters and standing vigil to protect the space. Ultimately, a plan was devised to re-inter the excavated remains after study by a team from Howard University, placing the bones in wood coffins, with heads oriented to the west, in keeping with the tradition of the original burials.
“This building is a headstone for 20,000 bodies buried in downtown Manhattan,” says architect and activist Pascale Sablan, who worked on the ABG project as an intern—an eye-opening experience for the young professional, who is now a senior associate at S9ARCHITECTURE. “When you’re in school, you learn about making beautiful projects, architectural wonders. This kind of project makes a difference for a larger story,” she adds, speaking to the monument’s symbolic role of “providing justice to many, both alive and dead.”
A similar impulse was behind the creation of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery, Alabama, earlier this year after nearly a decade of work by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit that challenges racial and economic injustice while fighting to end mass incarceration. Designed in collaboration with MASS Design Group and located in a city where Confederate monuments remain a common sight, the memorial honors and acknowledges victims of lynching in the United States, as well as the terror that violence created, while providing a forum to address the lasting effects of this shameful heritage. Looking to Holocaust and Apartheid monuments for inspiration, the Montgomery memorial attempts to give visitors a sense of the scale of these killings as a way to “expose the false narratives that have been told to justify what’s been done,” says EJI senior attorney Sia Sanneh, and to help contextualize the injustices that persist as a result of systematic racism.
“As much as [these spaces are] about memorializing the past, they’re really about, ‘What are we doing now?’ ” Leon says of the ABG and others of its ilk. “We all need to acknowledge our collective history, and then we can ask: What are we leaving behind for future generations? Who do we really want to be, in the future?”
While the graffiti at the African Burial Ground were quickly washed away and the alleged perpetrator charged, the call to action the act inspired is a reminder of the important role of these memorial spaces, not just as symbols of recognition and remembrance, but as forums for the conversations to move things forward.