The area on border of the Financial District and Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, there is a complex network of administrative, federal, and civic buildings primarily owned by the federal government. In 1990, the General Services Administration (GSA) initiated the construction of a 34-story office tower at 290 Broadway that would house offices for the IRS and the EPA. Given the federal ownership, GSA was required to adhere to the National Historic Preservation Act, a mandate for thoroughly examining historic and archaeological aspects before construction could proceed. Despite the burial ground being depicted on a 1755 map, their archaeologists were skeptical about finding intact remains due to extensive development and land build-up in the 19th and 20th centuries that could have obliterated evidence of the cemetery. It didn’t take long into their excavations before several skeletal remains, and within a year, well-intact 390 burials were unearthed, and 200 more burials were still in the ground. They identified the site as an African Burial Ground, which stood out as one of the most extensive and early sites linked to 18th-century slavery in the United States, especially regarding the less documented northern colonies.
According to the National Park Service, “the site uncovered the remains of 419 Africans and more than 500 individual artifacts. Recognized as one of the most crucial archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, the African Burial Ground holds national significance for the insights it provides into the lives of Africans and African Americans in an urban setting. The interred individuals and their belongings contribute to constructing a more comprehensive history of New York City during the 17th and 18th centuries and shed light on the experiences of Africans in the city.”
Shamefully, city officials and the GSA attempted to rush the job. President George H. Bush signed legislation officially halting the project and allocating a $3 million fund to establish a memorial site on the burial ground. 419 burials were returned to the burial ground. In November 1993, the African American Burial Ground was recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
In 1994, the Ted Weiss Federal Building opened beside the African Burial Ground Historic District. There is a stipulation with all Federal buildings that 0.5 percent of the overall construction cost goes to the “Art-in-Architecture” projects. Here, several works respond directly to the setting and its history, but the one I find most interesting is an untitled glass tile mosaic by Roger Brown in 1994. You immediately feel the work’s enormity, as, despite being 14 feet tall and 10 feet wide, it feels almost miniature and is installed way up on a soaring wall. The glass tiles shimmer from skylight windows above, revealing the severity of the piece.
On the thin top layer of the work, we see the central symbols of the New York cityscape (circa the early 1990s). We see artificial depictions of a miniature Brooklyn Bridge, World Trade Towers, and Empire State Building almost severed from their traditional scale as they sit between a gloomy, shadowy pattern of lemon-wedged shape clouds. Below them, the structures are literally built on a bed of emaciated faces, Black, Brown, and white, each with sunken cheeks and blank stares. Towards the bottom, the faces turn to skulls, simultaneously exquisite and unsettling, existing in a haunting realm of the catacombs. The skulls are stacked and arranged in a geometric honeycomb, showing in the most literal sense how deeply this hidden history is embedded down to our core.
While Brown’s artistic representation pays tribute to the African Burial Ground, the central concept of the mosaic revolves around the sorrowful impact of the AIDS epidemic. Brown was a gay man. He received an HIV-positive diagnosis in 1988 and was living with AIDS by 1993. While themes associated with the HIV/AIDS pandemic became evident in Brown’s art during the 1980s, these subjects persisted throughout his career. His mosaic is in commemoration of all ages, of all races, and those who have endured premature suffering and death from this disease. Regardless of their misery, regardless of bodies buried directly outside of these doors, the city and its progress stop for nothing.
On November 22, 1997, Roger Brown passed away. Following his death, Roger Brown received posthumous recognition from the Chicago Commission on Human Relations’ Advisory Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues. In 2004, he was posthumously inducted into the LGBT Hall of Fame. This is perhaps another topic for another essay, but I am standing here both stunned and amazed by the mosaic and just in awe that it exists. I’ve been on numerous public art committees in multiple cities and couldn’t imagine being able to pass this under, over, or around the red tape at City Hall. With its content, imagery, location, essential invitation for critical discourse, and societal reflection, it’s almost hard to believe it exists at a federal building.