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Portsmouth African Burial Ground Blues

African Burial Ground Design Proposal/ City of Portsmouth

When workmen "discovered" the African American Burial Ground beneath the streets of Portsmouth in 2003, the city agreed with one voice that a memorial was needed. But how to honor as many as 200 citizens whose graves had been ignored and built over by the city? The first draft of the memorial designs were released recently, and in the words of the Burial Ground committee chairman, "Now we know what we don’t want."

 

 

 

EDITORIAL: Black Cemetery Memorial Still in Limbo

READERS RESPOND to this editorial 
VISIT OUR: Black Heritage web section 

I haven’t written about the African Burial Ground project for years. I find the topic too emotional to cover. It still shames and enrages me that, in a city with acres and acres of cemeteries, Portsmouth managed to tar and build over its one graveyard delegated to black citizens. When I talk about this topic, my voice cracks. We did to these poor souls in death, what we did to them in life. We denied them their humanity.

African Burial Ground design / City of PortsmouthWhen a few of what may be hundreds of decayed coffins were discovered under the street at the corner of Court and Chestnut in the fall of 2003, it was no surprise. A bronze Black Heritage Trail plaque at the top of the street told us what was buried there. People have been working hard for generations not to dig too deep and uncover what everyone knew was under the street. It was no surprise, but it was a great relief. Portsmouth’s long-whispered secret was finally exposed. The time for apologies, reparations and forgiveness had begun.

Last month, after years of research, discussion and planning, the City of Portsmouth unveiled the first draft of its design for a memorial area on Chestnut Street. The design did not carry water. It was unremarkable. It looked, for lack of a better description, like a white-man’s park, with neatly placed signs, concrete benches, pretty shrubs, brick walkways, a fence and a little memorial. It looked safe. It looked cost-effective. It looked like every tiny memorial park you have ever seen. The most interesting concept showed a serpentine pathway that, at second glance, looked almost exactly like the logo of Woodman & Company Landscape Architecture, LLC, the firm that submitted the designs.

Pretty much everyone in attendance at the last African Burial committee meeting was disappointed. But this is a very polite group and no one got upset. Historian Valerie Cunningham calmly explained, once again, the difference between traditional white cemetery design and the African way of death. Africans saw all members of their community as one big family and bodies were often buried close together with little if any permanent markings. Committee members suggested that the site might be colorful, less perfect and neat, more reflective of African imagery and African beliefs. The design firm accepted the criticism graciously and headed back to the drawing board. What we have so far is the musical equivalent of Gerry and the Pacemakers singing their bland version of a dynamic Little Richard tune. What the project needs now – has needed from the start – is a visionary artist who can turn this emotional story into a powerful public space.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017 
 
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