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African Burial Ground Monument

Approximately 15,000 African slaves and their descendants were once unceremoniously buried under what is today Manhattan - and forgotten.

A new visitor center opened near the rediscovered cemetery from the 17th and 18th centuries to celebrate the ethnic Africans who had toiled, many unpaid, to help make New York the nation's commercial capital.

"It's shocking - the number of people today who are still unaware that this history exists in New York," said Tara Morrison, superintendent of the African Burial Ground National Monument. It's located a short walk from Wall Street, where African slaves once were traded.

Some of their remains were exhumed after 1991 and reburied on a third of an acre surrounded by high-rises amid bustling lower Manhattan.

The visitor center on Broadway opened after a ceremony that included remarks by Howard Dodson, director of Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

"People say the South was evil, keeping slaves, and that the good people of the North were opposed to it," Dodson said. "The truth is, New York was just as involved; this city's economy was tied to slavery, and New York merchants financed the South's cotton trade."

The street-level center offers interactive exhibits showing that the African labor force was crucial to the prosperity of Dutch-colonized New Amsterdam in the 1600's, and later New York, governed by the English until the American Revolution. In 1776, there were about 25,000 people living in New York, about one-fifth of them slaves.

The slaves had come off ships from Africa and the Caribbean, landing in Perth Amboy, N.J., a busy duty-free port for the importation of slaves. They worked on docks and made roads or did farm and domestic work. The skilled artisans and craftsmen were associated with shipping, construction and various trades.

Some remained enslaved, while others gained some degree of freedom and could raise their families, though none had the full rights of the colonists. But all were among those building a new nation.

When these early New Yorkers' died, they were wrapped in shrouds and buried on more than 6 acres of land beyond the then, official northern boundary of the city, at today's Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. Only non-Africans could be buried in the city proper.

After the 1741 slave insurrection, 18 slaves were hanged and 13 burned at the stake on vague charges of arson and conspiracy.

The forgotten burial place was rediscovered in 1991, when construction began on the foundation of a federal office building. The remains of about 400 men, women and children were found 20 feet underground. The government building was redesigned to accommodate the memorial, and in 1993 the burial ground became a National Historic Landmark.

President George W. Bush signed a proclamation in 2006 designating it a National Monument as the "most important historic urban archaeological project undertaken in the United States." A memorial was dedicated the following year. The 6,700-square-foot space has four exhibit areas, a theater and a gift shop.

When in Manhattan, visit a Nubian monument.