By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — The remains of thousands of slaves lie beneath the streets of lower Manhattan, out of sight and often forgotten.
To honor their memory, as well as the memory of the free African and African-Americans who were also buried there, several New York politicians are pushing for a comprehensive museum near the African Burial Ground on Duane Street. The museum would be larger than the 2,500-square-foot visitors center that opened nearby last year, and it would also cover the history of slavery across the United States.
"The African Burial Ground is a site of the utmost historic and cultural significance for New York City and the United States," U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who introduced legislation supporting the museum last week, said in a statement.
"A [museum] on those grounds will provide a means of paying respects to the thousands buried there, and will educate Americans and others about slavery's profound impact on our society."
Nadler's legislation, introduced last Thursday, would create an African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Educational Center adjacent to the 300-year-old cemetery.
The federal government would pay two-thirds of the cost of finding a site and building the museum, including an initial allocation of $15 million in 2012.
The legislation also sets up an advisory council for the museum, consisting of the secretary of the Interior, the National Park Service, the General Services Administration, the Smithsonian Institution, the mayor, the governor, the borough president and others. The museum would be affiliated with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in Washington D.C. in 2015.
The lower Manhattan burial ground first surfaced 20 years ago, when workers were digging foundations for the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway. After years of emotional debate about how to treat the exhumed skeletons of hundreds of men, women and children — the remains of many of which showed the trauma of a difficult life — the government decided to re-inter them in a memorial on the site.
The striking black stone monument above the graves opened in 2007 at Duane and Elk streets, and last year a small visitors center opened around the corner in the Ted Weiss building.
Nadler's legislation, which was co-sponsored by Reps. Charles Rangel and Gregory Meeks, seeks to finally bring the drawn-out saga to a close.
The museum would "help ensure that this global story of injustice, sacrifice and eventual triumph is no longer hidden nor forgotten," Rangel said in a statement.