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Peggy King Jorde has been involved in memorializing and preserving African burial grounds for nearly 30 years. What started as a project during her time working in the office of New York City Mayor David Dinkins has grown into a passion driving her to international activism.

Originally from Albany, Georgia, Jorde grew up in the segregated south, the daughter of an acclaimed civil rights attorney who counted Martin Luther King Jr. among his clients. She made her way to New York to study architecture and “never dreamed my journey would lead me here.”

“Here” is her home in Englewood, where she gave a virtual presentation Thursday on behalf of the United Nations about the value of preserving slave-linked burial places worldwide.

“Back in 1991 I was working for Mayor Dinkins, overseeing construction projects for cultural institutions, and when we found out the federal government was getting ready to build a new building, on the map we could see that the site was an African burial ground,” Jorde said in an interview. “From then on I just got involved in a lot of activism.”

The 34-story federal office building project triggered a cultural survey of the area mandated in the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. During the survey, researchers uncovered a 6-acre burial ground “containing upwards of 15,000 intact skeletal remains of enslaved and free Africans who lived and worked in colonial New York,” according to a National Park Service website about the site, which is now a National Monument.

Rediscovery of the Burial Ground, which stretched east of Broadway and north of Chambers Street toward Foley Square in lower Manhattan, “altered the understanding and scholarship surrounding enslavement and its contribution to constructing New York City,” according to the website. The Burial Ground dates from the middle 1630s to 1795, and is currently the nation’s earliest and largest African burial ground rediscovered in the United States.

Jorde started doing what she could to preserve the burial ground.

Eventually the African Burial Ground set the precedent in New York and nationally for a “huge level of public and civic engagement,” Jorde said. She also became involved in both the memorial and interpretive center at the site.

That effort led to others like it, which is why Jorde found herself invited to participate Thursday in an online discussion called “Unveiling the Past.” The virtual program covered the significance of the preservation of burial grounds of those who were enslaved by the transatlantic slave trade, the ethical questions raised in disturbing these sacred grounds and the challenges facing historians writing the history of the slave trade.

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The discussion was facilitated by the Remember Slavery Program, part of the U.N.’s Education Outreach Section. It was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007 to further learning about the causes, consequences, lessons and legacy of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

Jorde’s work on the African Burial Ground may have garnered her initial attention — but she hasn’t stopped since. She now does speaking engagements and other consultation work on the historic preservation of burial sites for marginalized groups.

She is also an advocate for preserving an African burial ground discovered on Saint Helena Island in the South Atlantic. The island is an important marker of the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade, located midway between Africa and the New World on the routes used by slave traders.

Jorde first got involved in the Saint Helena project when she was approached by two British filmmakers. Through both virtual and in-person efforts, Jorde has worked with Annina Van Neel, who is originally from Namiba but is now working on the remote island, to try and preserve burial sites there because the island has “the largest trace of the most significant thing that has happened in the world — slavery,” Jorde said. 

Jorde has also met with two members of Parliament, Diane Abbott and David Lammy, in London about global engagement.

“Saint Helena is the typical middle passage story,” Jorde said. “When Europeans would bring enslaved Africans to the States or the Carribean or Brazil they would stop at Saint Helena for provisions or if they had anything they needed to do and part of that stop was a tax, sometimes monetary, sometimes slaves,” Jorde said. “So anyone that is a descendant of slaves had a family member that stopped there and I felt connected to that.”

On Thursday, Jorde talked about the key factors of the Saint Helena site that make it importantto preserve so it can be treated  “with the respect it deserves.”

“I’m working to build and spark political will to get behind supporting, funding and in some way influencing possible private funders to preserve this site,” Jorde said. “I’m going to share the background of how I got involved and hopefully spark interest and reinforce that it’s not a site to turn our backs on because it’s not just about Saint Helena but about all enslaved people.”

Katie Sobko is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: sobko@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @katesobko

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