NJ Urban News writer Alexis Collins recently had an insightful discussion with Peggy King Jorde, a cultural projects consultant who had spent time overseeing capital construction projects of all the cultural institutions in the city of New York. She also used to work for New York City’s first African American Mayor, David Norman Dinkins. Jorde’s career took a turn, and she began working on historic preservation projects tied to the New York African Burial Ground National Memorial, the first of its kind in the United States. Currently, she’s working on approximately seven burial grounds between the U.S. and the island of St. Helena, a British territory in the South Atlantic, along with the Dutch Caribbean island, St. Eustatius. Her personal journey and renowned expertise helped drive the critically acclaimed documentary, ‘A Story of Bones,’ which was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival and made its New Jersey premiere at the 2022 Teaneck International Film Festival in November. We spoke about the documentary, her activist roots, the importance of protecting and recognizing African burial grounds on a global level, and the significance of knowing your story.
NJ Urban News: Can you please explain some of your work on the culturally disenfranchised, along with its focus on Africans?
Peggy King Jorde: In 1990 or 1991, I was working in the Mayor’s Office of Construction overseeing any kind of construction that was going on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the aquarium, the botanical gardens, all of those things, when it was brought to my attention by a fellow colleague who worked for City Park, about a map that indicated that there was an African burial ground in the city of New York, and it was on property that was owned by the city of New York, but through a friendly condemnation with the federal government, [it] was [then] handed over to the federal government just north of City Hall…to build a new federal building. This gentleman, who was a friend of mine, was much older and he was a German American. He shared with me this map and he was shocked because he considered himself a history buff. He was born and raised in New York City and thought that he knew New York City history but had no idea that New York City had a history of slavery, it was something that generally for a lot of people, was assigned to the South. He felt that since I was in the Mayor’s Office of Construction, that I would have access to the Mayor to bring it to his attention as the first African American Mayor to say, “look, you can’t build on this ground, this is sacred ground, and something significant and sacred should be built on that ground.”
I wore lots of different hats on that project. As a result of becoming involved in that project and reaching out to other city agencies and really doing a lot of activism within city government before there was a lot of activism outside of city government, I spent a lot of time researching and understanding what the processes were [when] getting involved with the federal government, and what they were actually doing (and what they were actually not doing) to honor the grounds, which then really prompted me to pivot on the work that I was doing and really see a mission in construction and how it is that we tell our stories and preserve these sites, even in the midst of a place like New York City where a lot of development is going on. Through the process of becoming involved, I really was exposed to a lot of community engagement and what that meant [and] political engagement and what that meant, meaning going off and meeting with politicians, particularly African American politicians and bringing about awareness about the site, asking them to reach out to their constituencies, so that we could bring pressure to bear upon the federal government to do the right thing.
NJ Urban News: You were raised in Albany, GA, stating that “I grew up watching my parents defend their community in the Jim Crow South. Their pursuit of justice marked me, and to this day remains my North Star.” Can you please elaborate on what you mean by that statement? Your father, Atty. C.B. King, represented scores of civil rights demonstrators during the 1961-1962 Albany Movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who in fact, visited Englewood during the same campaign, to lend counsel to civil rights activists protesting school desegregation in Bergen County. How did your parents’ activist past encourage and inspire your own activism?
Peggy King Jorde: There are things that I remember, maybe I didn’t remember how I old I was, but I remember images that were vivid to me from my childhood. I was growing up in a town and in a community and in a family that was committed to “fighting the good fight.” Whenever confronted or whenever those issues were tied to racism and inequality, that was the essence of my family life, and so the conversations were about that around the dinner table. My parents debated about all kinds of issues, that influences you. It was a lifeline; it was not unique to have people ringing our doorbell in the middle of the night because their child or their spouse was arrested and was sitting in a jail in some little town in the state of Georgia and they needed legal help from my father who was a civil rights attorney. There’s no way that you grow up in that environment and not be shaped by that…Whether it was in a hotel, whether it was a restaurant, no matter what, I watched my parents challenge what would’ve been considered white authority in every instance and that was my classroom. That is why my parents were my North Star.
NJ Urban News: Let’s segue a bit and discuss the documentary you were a part of, ‘A Story of Bones.’ How did this documentary come about and what prompted you to get involved? You were not only an onscreen principal, but you also served as the film’s impact and consulting producer. How long did it take to film the entire project?
Peggy King Jorde: The two young British filmmakers [Joseph Curran and Dominic de Vere], who are white and out of the London metropolitan area, they, along with a young Namibian woman [Annina van Neel] who lived on the island, came to the island to film something completely different, before they became aware of this whole history of the island having served as a Middle Passage site, as a site that was home to thousands of enslaved Africans who were pulled from the hull of slave ships that were, they called them, “illegally” trying to still engage in slavery when the British government had abolished it. None of those enslaved Africans, though they were pulled from those ships by the Brits, and they were considered “liberated” Africans, they were never liberated, all of them either died on the island, died in transit, or they got shipped on. Of the 23,000 who passed through that island, they got shipped onto other Caribbean islands that were British territory. Only about a little over 500 stayed on the island and they remained on the margins of society. The way that I got involved was through these gentlemen and this young woman, who came to the island to work on an airport, which ultimately built a service road that unearthed 325 burials.
As the story unfolded for them, they started researching if anybody else had done this kind of work, and my name popped up along with a number of other names… That was about six or seven years ago, they had already been on the island working on this, so the film took about eight years. I joined in working on the film six or seven years into that. As a result, I ended up writing to these two gentlemen and this woman, an expat who lived on the island, for about a year, going back and forth, advising them, telling them what I think they should do, who they should be doing outreach to, and what we learned from the New York African Burial Ground because the New York African Burial Ground globally set the stage for everybody else. Finally, I met them on Skype, and it became clear that they were really still needing more help and I recommended that they consider bringing me out so I could see who was on the ground, who were the community people, who were the elected officials, and how [did they] do this? They agreed that the way I would come onto the island was through a boat, which took six days from Cape Town, that’s how remote this island was. But then, they were in the process of opening the airport and once they opened the airport, they were no longer going to have this boat access, so I arrived on the island by plane, one of the early planes that landed on the island. Planes were on and off the island once a week, so I went to St. Helena for a week.
(In part 2 of the feature, Peggy King Jorde will discuss her experiences with encouraging others to maintain and understand the historical significance of African Burial Grounds.)