Rites of Ancestral Return Tribute Honors African Remains Junious Ricardo Stanton While preparing ground breaking and excavation for the construction of a new federal office building in Lower Manhattan workmen discovered the remains of a burial ground where as many as 20,000 free and enslaved Africans were interred during the Colonial Period of America. Once the remains were discovered work ceased because black activists made an issue of stopping work by laying down in front of bulldozers because they felt the ground was sacred. Finally the federal government agreed not to further desecrate the site and to allow researchers to catalogue the remains. However activists fearing white researchers would be insensitive to the significance and disrespectful towards of the remains demanded an African-American research team be allowed to conduct the research. A team from Howard University in Washington D.C. was chosen to collect the remains, catalogue and study them. The University's studies reveal much about the lives and deaths of many of those interred in the graves. First they discovered many of the bodies were buried in traditional African fashion or they were buried facing home, Africa. Many of the remains indicted severe physical strain such as broken bones, one woman's skeleton had a musket ball lodged in the rib cage others revealed diseases and weariness from back breaking work. The study has been complete and the Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture an arm of the New York Public Library organized a special reinternment tribute entitled Rites of Ancestral Return. Howard Dodson the Director of the Schomburg Center accompanied the coffins from Howard University on each stop of the tribute. Each stop along the symbolic and ceremonial journey featured the pouring of libations, prayers and songs as crowds turned out to pay homage to the remains of those unknown Africans; a man, woman and two children who received more respect and reverence hundreds of years after their deaths than they did while they were alive. From Washington the tribute moved to Baltimore Maryland where ceremonies were held at the Willard W Allen Masonic Temple. From there they traveled to the African Union Church in Wilmington Delaware for an evening service. On Thursday the entourage arrived in Philadelphia Pennsylvania for an ecumenical service at historic Mother Bethel AME Church which was founded by Richard Allen. Mother Bethel is located in the heart of what was the Colonial African Community. The sanctuary was jammed with school children and elders, many dressed in traditional, ceremonial or stylish African garb. From Mother Bethel the four hand carved African mahogany coffins were carried two blocks north to Washington Square, what was at one time was known as Congo Square for symbolic interment. The next leg of the journey is an 6 PM evening service in Newark New Jersey at Bethany Baptist Church. On Friday the coffins will be ferried to New York, arriving at the Wall Street pier and taken to the Wall Street site of the infamous Colonial New York Slave Market. Following an all night vigil and tour of the five boroughs the remains along with the remains of 200 hundred others will be reinterred in New York. The Philadelphia ceremony was moving, reverent and deeply spiritual. Following the ceremony in Congo Square the remains were placed on a bus for transport to Newark New Jersey. A tribute reception and repast was held at the African American Museum at 701 Arch several blocks north of Congo Square. Rev. Eyele Yetunde participated in the ecumenical service at Mother Bethel. For her it was an emotional experience. "It's a time of celebration because it was a home going, it was a time of mourning because the foundation of this country was built on the oppression of our ancestors and it's a reminder of the fact we still have along way to go. It was also a beautiful thing to see how everybody in our community came together here in Philadelphia in this ecumenical service to remember the fact that we have to reclaim that which is ours, to remember the cultural significance of our ancestors and remember the significance of Sankofa, remembering where we came from in order to know where we are going and make sure we don't repeat the ugly part of our history." Dr Michelle Strongfields a physician currently living and working in Guyana South America was home for a visit, heard about the tribute and came because she said she felt compelled to come. "I was drawn to this. I had to come. The most significant thing for me today was I had been struggling and wrestling whether or not I wanted to return to the states and today has crystalized for me the fact that I'll be back to pick up the tread of work that I left and see if I can connect it to what I am doing now." Historian Charles Blockson, an authority on African-Americans in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the Colonial period who has authored numerous books on African-Americans, spoke at the Mother Bethel ecumenical service, at Congo Square and at a program at the African American Museum. "For enslaved Africans in Philadelphia we must remember that many of our African ancestors worshiped traditional gods, many were Muslims we practiced many different religions. When I was younger a relative died and they passed me over the grave, that was one of our African traditions. That was to protect the child from negative spirits. We have lost so much of our traditions. We must get back and study them." For many in the audience the Rites of Ancestral Return tribute was validation for a similar struggle Philadelphians are waging to honor an African burial ground and the eight enslaved Africans George Washington brought with him to Philadelphia when he served as the nation's first president. Blockson who has been an invaluable resource in the fight to document African-American history in negotiations with the US Park Service to get them to build a monument to all enslaved Africans in the new Liberty Bell pavilion gave a detailed history of the contributions of African people in Colonial Philadelphia. It was a glorious day to be an African.