June 27, 2015
First Lady Chirlane McCray: We are here this afternoon to reckon with a place and a practice that are in stark contrast to everything I love about New York City. But if we want to create an even better New York, we must grapple with the gruesome chapters of our past. Like every American community, New York was shaped by slavery. But how many New Yorker’s know that slaves laid the foundation of this city – the bricks and stone – and made possible a certain way of life? How many New Yorker’s know that our city’s slave market was rivaled only by the slave market in Charleston, South Carolina? And how many New Yorker’s know that there were years when up to 20 percent of city residents were slaves? The answer to all three of these questions is not nearly enough. So, let us remember today, and every day, that the buying and selling of a people for profit and material gain took place right here. Let us remember that the roots of slavery run deep. Although slavery was abolished 150 years ago, those roots have fueled income inequality, discrimination, and segregation – many of the thorny issues which continue to plague us today. Nothing we can do, can reverse the pain, or change our city’s history. But if we are to heal and make true progress, we must acknowledge what has happened here. In his eulogy of Reverend Clemente Pinckney, President Obama said that the Reverend knew – and I quote – that “history can’t be a sore to justify injustice or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, how to break the cycle, a roadway toward a better world” – end quote. Today, at the foot of a roadway that was named for a wall built in part by slaves, we are not just dedicating a plaque. We dedicate ourselves to building a better city and a better world. And we will now hear from a man who has devoted his life to creating a more just and equal city, Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Mayor de Blasio: I want to thank Chirlane for powerful words and for always being a truth teller, which is how this city heels and moves forward. Let’s thank our first lady.
This place reminds of us one of the worst chapters in our history. 304 years ago, with the approval of the city government, this became a place for buying and selling and renting human-beings. It was a vile, vile trade that persisted for more than 50 years right here. You could come here any day and see it happening and somehow it was considered normal in this city. It continued elsewhere in the city for close to 80 years more. Today, we recall that history; we commemorate the lives of all who passed here. The plaque we gather to dedicate is another way to signal something – to say something out loud that was true three centuries ago, even though it was never acknowledged. It was true then; it is true today; it will be true tomorrow. Black lives matter. A simple concept, one we shouldn’t have to delineate, but one that we need to because of the stains on American history. I want to thank everyone who is here; who believes in the importance of this moment. You’ll hear from a few, in a moment, but I want to thank in particular, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
I want to thank the councilmember who represents this district, Margaret Chin. And I want to thank an artist from Brooklyn and a writer who first proposed this marker, Chris Cobb.
Mayor: Thank you very much.
This city – the city we love – is proud of being a beacon of diversity. It’s why this has been a great city. There is no mistaking that. An inclusive city – a city for all, from everywhere was the foundation of our greatness. There are many people of good will in this city, but we still struggle with the truth. We still struggle with our history. We still hesitate to acknowledge it. It’s difficult to remember the most negative moments in our history. There are some who want us to look away. We can’t look away if we mean to go forward. The whole concept of this nation – remember, few nations were built on a set of ideas, very few in history and this is one – the concept of we the people was undermined and sullied from the beginning by slavery. The quest to form a more perfect union was made imperfect by racism. The slaves who suffered here – on this site – they mattered then and they matter now in our memories. And they are a clarion call to us. They are witnesses to us, of what must change. Their lives and their labor played a vital role in building the New York City we know. But much of their time on earth, literally, did not belong to them. For some, they never knew a single moment of freedom. Their humanity, like the humanity of all people, should be self-evident. But, how strange that this is a fight that we are fighting to this very moment. The idea that all lives matter is a foundation of democracy. It’s a foundation of everything we consider to be our moral underpinning of our society. And yet, it still isn’t practiced. And we must keep reminding ourselves, and everyone around this city and this nation, that we cannot be complete until the stain of racism is eradicated. Frederick Douglas, born a slave – one of the greatest Americans, one of the great American thinkers and activists – wrote, quote “the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection as well as observation”. Douglas understood that we can’t be great if we ignore. We can’t be great if we minimize the mistakes, the pain, the immorality, we can only be great if we uncover it and address it. So today, we seek to uncover New York City’s hidden history. No longer will the stories of slaves be forgotten or left untold.
We’ll continue to confront our past and that will help us move into our future. And we will confront the challenges of today. It’s painful that we gather in the wake of a act of racial terrorism in Charleston. It’s a reminder of the work to be done and the urgency of that work. But I do think each of us reflecting on this history will inspire us to complete the mission, to end all the vast vestiges of racism that still plague us. I want to offer in the spirit of diversity of this city of this city a few words in Spanish.
[Mayor de Blasio speaks Spanish]
I want to thank again all the people who worked hard to bring us to this day. Now, it’s my honor to introduce one of those people, our Parks Commissioner, Mitch Silver.
[Parks Commissioner Mitch Silver speaks]
Mayor: Well there are many leaders who are helping us on this journey to fully come into grips with our past, and turning that recognition into a more equal, more fairer future for all New Yorkers. I want to credit Councilmember Jumaane Williams for being one of those strong voices in this city. It is my honor to introduce Councilmember Williams.
[Councilmember Jumaane Williams speaks]
Mayor: Thank you, Jumaane for those very powerful, very important words and we appreciate your leadership.
For our next speaker, I just wanted to thank—it’s great to have the National Park Service here. I want to thank Jim Cleckley from the National Park Service for being here with us.
Our last speaker – really, I think will help to elevate the importance of this occasion. Yusef Komunyakaa, a Pulitzer prize winning writer, who weaves everyday language in his own personal experience to create poems of singular power and beauty. Yusef will now read his poem “The African Burial Ground.”
[Yusef Komunyakaa speaks]
Mayor: I just wanted to first, thank again everyone who helped bring us to this day. I want to thank the Chair of Community Board 1, Catherine McVay Hughes, and everyone at Community Board 1, and all of our colleagues who brought us to this day. I think it would be appropriate at this moment to remember all those who were bought and sold here and now whose stories are lost. And at the same time remember the nine Americans lost in that church in Charleston, South Carolina. So I’d like to ask everyone to join in a moment of silence.
[Moment of silence]
Thank you, everyone. Thank you for joining together in this moment to remember our past and move more forcefully and more powerfully toward our future. Thank you.