Boneyard of Justice

I’m that guy in the family who everyone rolls their eyes at when we go on vacation because I always insist on visiting cemeteries wherever we are. Protestations notwithstanding, I sometimes win on the family outing and more often than not circumambulate around various boneyards alone, gleaning history, paying heed to aesthetic patterns and offering deep thoughts of respect for town founders, luminaries and otherwise unusual souls that one wouldn’t ordinarily see buried anywhere else.

I root this interest in a moment seared in memory — my late grandfather’s funeral on a brisk, snow covered day in February 1973. It was my first visit to the family plots in Milwaukee, where I grew up, and it was there, as a curious ten year old tucked among family and admirers of my grandfather, a community doctor and beloved man, that I first heard the stones and bones talk. The beckoned. “Welcome. Enjoy your stay. We’ll be seeing you around,” they seemed to say. My grandmother, a refugee from Belarus at the turn of the century, threw herself to the ground in despair. I was nonplussed; fascinated. The granite next to which she tumbled in grief were etched with the names of her parents, Chaim and Rebecca, leaders in their own right. Here was Minsk, Milwaukee, and prayers to return to an original Jerusalem given new life, brought into being by dates of birth and death. What began there ended here; and includes everything and everyone in-between. I was born in Sacramento; I live in Brooklyn; I visit Israel. When I die, bury me in Wisconsin.

Soon after we moved to Brooklyn, a rare discovery was made in Lower Manhattan: more than 400 intact remains of African slaves, who labored in and built this city, were found buried within a site being excavated for a Federal courthouse set to be built at Duane and Broadway. Cries and protests at the desecration inherent in this surprise exhumation commenced. A raw, unhealed, open wound was exposed: America’s narrative of Freedom and Justice was in fact a compromised one, built in large measure with labor of Injustice. And these bones, like the prophet Ezekiel once said, rose and spoke. They spoke words of healing. They spoke words of hope. They spoke words of life. They spoke words of justice. “I will make them one nation in the land,” they said.

African Burial Ground National Museum

After protests and negotiations, the bodies were removed, categorized and catalogued at Howard University, and in 2003, reinterred in a sacred ceremony attended by dignitaries, religious and political leaders. You can visit them today at the African Burial Ground National Museum, which is part of the U.S. National Park Service. Let me recommend you do so, too.

I did, with my own Daughters of the American Revolution (Brooklyn Auxiliary, Left-Wing Jewish Branch) on the Saturday afternoon of Martin Luther King Weekend. Fortuitously, there were no eyes rolling but a deep engagement and conversation about America, its origins, and the lives lost in building and maintaining the infrastructure for the soaring and aspirational values meant to animate this unique republican project known as “representative democracy.”

No one was there. Except a guard and docent, each of exceptional hospitality and thoroughness of purpose. Just as you’d expect on hallowed ground. Their attentiveness to us seemed to say, “How could this not be an important place to visit? And why wouldn’t one be proud to work here?” It’s exactly how I feel in cemeteries — in Milwaukee, Queens, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There IS life after death. It is us.

We looked at forensic photos of skeletons; pushed stevedore barrels up ramps; tried to imagine the unimaginable cruelties of slavery; stood in wonder at the resilience of those who somehow found the strength and luck to transcend. When we left to look for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat, and wandered among the modern buildings in the contemporary caverns of Now New York and passed (thanks to Eric Foner’s work on the Underground Railroad, Gateway to Freedom) houses and signposts of those who sought to liberate bones when they were still flesh and blood, we knew that redemption songs could still be sung.

Not a surprise, then, that this week revealed the news that another such boneyard had recently been discovered, this one at an East Harlem bus depot (talk about transience.) The 126th Street bus depot is built atop a site that was once a Reformed Dutch churchyard, making us yet again contemplate, if we’ve the patience and time to do so, how many-layered is our historical existence on this old earth. The Underground Railroad, of course, was made up of Blacks and whites, slaves and free, religious and secular, the esteemed and the plainfolk, each willing to risk it all in order to do what was right.

Reformed Dutch churchyard, Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York 1863

It humbles, this message: that those who did what was right for Freedom and Justice; and the bones who lived and worked and built and died; and those who listen and tell their story; that all of us, each of us, has a role to play in the attainment of Justice and Freedom for all.

Be careful where you step. Be mindful of the address. “The land on which you stand is holy ground.”

And the bones below call, “Justice! Freedom!”