Thomas Paine Park

Triumph of the Human Spirit

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

In 1991 construction workers excavating the foundation for a Federal office building at 290 Broadway and Reade Street made a startling discovery—they came across the intact remains of more than 400 persons interred long ago at the African Burial Ground. Following an extensive archaeological survey, a portion of this historic site was preserved as a National Historic Landmark, and the entire burial ground as well as other sites of archaeological sensitivity, from the southern portion of Foley Square to the northern precinct of City Hall Park was designated the New York City African Burial Ground and Commons District. Triumph of the Human Spirit, a monumental sculpture by Lorenzo Pace, and other commemorative features in the vicinity are intended to honor this important legacy of the city’s early history.

The African Burial Ground covered more than two acres, and it is estimated that as many as 10,000 men, women and children were interred in the graveyard that was nestled between two hills. Residents of African descent in New Amsterdam and later New York were enslaved from the city’s modern birth in 1625 to their emancipation in New York State in 1827. The burial ground itself was closed in 1794, and later subsumed by centuries of development, as the city’s growth advanced northward from the Financial District of Lower Manhattan.

In the late 1990s the City extensively renovated Foley Square, de-mapping cross streets and consolidating the various smaller park properties into a single unified, more gracious five-acre public space. This sculpture was commissioned through the City’s Percent for Art program as the centerpiece of the new park. Contained within a large circular fountain, it consists of a 50-high upright abstract granite sculpture inspired by the “Chi Wara” carved antelope headdresses of the Bamana people in Mali, West Africa, and is set within an elongated boat-like structure that symbolizes canoes used by Native Americans, as well as the “middle passage” or overseas journey of enslaved Africans.

Pace was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1943. As a child his family moved to Chicago, and Pace later earned a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as a doctorate in art education from Illinois State University. He maintains a studio in Brooklyn, and has served as the director of the Montclair State University Art Gallery. Working in diverse media, the artist has dedicated particular attention to themes of voodoo, African iconography and urban issues. His work has been exhibited widely, including at the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Soaring high above the square, the sculpture symbolizes freedom and endurance. Besides its universal message, it was created with the artist’s own personal ancestry in mind, and its granite base contains a replica of the inherited lock and key which were used to enslave his great-great grandfather Steve Pace. Radiating from the fountain are five granite paving bands that terminate with large bronze relief medallions, each representing an epoch in the history of Foley Square and its environs. They were designed by R.G. Roesch and realized by sculptor Gregg LeFevre. The medallion at the intersection of Reade and Lafayette Street commemorates the African Burial Ground, complementing Pace’s sculpture and providing additional images and historical context.

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