To the rhythmic beat of African drums, 20 city high school students gathered yesterday in lower Manhattan to mark the beginning of construction of a granite memorial for the African Burial Ground.
Jahi-Abasi Jabbar, a junior at the Frederick Douglass Academy II in Harlem, attended the groundbreaking not with a shovel, but a white flag emblazoned with a yellow heart-shaped African symbol called a sankofa.
"It's a connection where I know my people will always be with me," said Jahi-Abasi, 15. "I feel I can carry on what they fought for and teach it to others. They fought for freedom."
Sankofa translates to "look to the past to inform the future."
Designed by architect Rodney Leon, the circular memorial will be finished by October 2006, according to the federal General Services Administration, which is overseeing the project on Duane St. near Broadway.
More than 20,000 enslaved and free Africans who worked as dockworkers, barrel makers and carpenters in old New York were buried in the 18th century cemetery.
"Two hundred years ago, the African Burial Ground was closed and fill was placed on top of it," said Howard Dodson, head of the Schomburg Center of Black Culture in Harlem. "The existence of the African Burial Ground as a historical place was wiped away from our memory."
"This monument will be an instrument to insure that we never forget again," said Dodson.
Leon was humbled that his design will honor such an important legacy.
"It's overwhelming and unbelievable that the ideas I was inspired by from the ancestors will be constructed as a permanent memorial," said Leon.