By Herb Boyd
The remains of African ancestors were hardly back in the ground from where they had been unearthed in 1991 before the nearby federal building at 290 Broadway was named to honor Ted Weiss, a New York Congressman who died in 1992.
For more than 12 years community activists had waged a campaign to get the remains of African ancestors re-interred. Now, there was yet another obstacle to peace and tranquility, the naming of a 34-story building hovering over the sacred African Burial Ground.
Dozens of those who had participated in the re-interment, including Councilman Charles Barron (D-East New York) and the Reverend Herb Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn, were once again at the site on November 3, African Solidarity Day, protesting what they viewed as sacrilege.
“We believe it was totally insensitive for them to do this and it’s reminiscent of the disrespect we endured from the General Services Administration over the many years of trying to get our ancestors back where they belong,” said Rev. Daughtry, in a later interview. “This is outrageous, and we don’t mean to cast any aspersions on Mr. Weiss’ name.”
Back in March, 2003, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who represents the 8th District, which used to be Weiss’s Congressional District 17, sponsored a bill to name the building after his predecessor. Weiss was born in Hungary. He was 10 when he and his family fled Nazi tyranny and left for the United States on the last passenger ship out of Hamburg, Germany before World
War II, arriving in the US in March, 1938. In 1961, he was elected to the New York City Council, and was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 where he served until his death.
The bill was passed in October, though there was little fanfare. Even so, it didn’t escape the attention of a cadre of community activists and Councilman Barron. To counter the government’s initiative, Barron and his cohorts decided to rename the building in honor of the great statesman Frederick Douglass, who escaped from bondage in the 1840s.
“We have told people that each time they go by the building to remember that it’s the Frederick Douglass Building,” said Barron, who is also a member of the Committee of Descendants of the African Burial Ground. “No matter what they may choose to call it, for us it will always be the Frederick Douglass Building.”
“And Frederick Douglass is a far more fitting name, given the site contains the bones of our ancestors,” Daughtry added. “This is a disgrace and we don’t plan to give in until something is done about it.”