SCHOMBURG CENTER’S FIRST ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATION of AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND
REINTERMENT RITES, ST. PAUL COMMUNITY BAPTIST CHURCH’S M.A.A.F.A., OTHER TRIBUTES
REMEMBERS AFRICANS of THE MIDDLE PASSAGE, THE DIASPORA AND EARLY AMERICA
Accompanied by Lem Peterkin photos of chambers being lowered into the ground, and Irsa Greene photo of lid cover¼and photo of the African Burial Ground sign. BG photo of Keith in suit in studio. Keith photo in workshop.
ENDURING CONNECTIONS: KEITH EVERSLEY
and “PREMIER” BURIAL CHAMBERS
Bernice Elizabeth Green
Keith Eversley was on his way to work one day in 1991 when loud protests coming from Broadway and Duane commanded his attention.
He had no idea what was going on so he walked over to the area near — what he later learned was — the African Burial Ground site, and observed from a distance. He continued on to his job, several blocks away, as operations manager for a restoration company. He later often found himself walking past the grounds, and each time he read with heightened interest the sign describing the death and lives of the 17th and 18th century enslaved Africans in Colonial New York. There was no way he could have known that a little more than a decade later he would be very much involved with those grounds and connected with those remains.
Eversley now owns his own restoration company, Premier Restoration located just blocks from the African Memorial Ground Site. His company created — what he calls the burial chambers — for the 419 coffins containing the remains of enslaved 17th- and 18th- century Africans who worked and barely lived in Colonial New York. The term crypt is shrouded in mystery and darkness, he says. “It is disrespectful to the ancestors who have helped us to see the light.”
I started in the restoration business in 1979, said the Guyana native, a former world-class soccer player who came here to find the opportunity that would help him send his children to college. I did not know where the business would lead me. But I was focused on doing something with my hands, something that I could pass down to my children and other children. I never chose this for myself, it just happened. I wanted to learn a skill.”
In conjunction with the work of the Ghana-based manufacturer who — with carvers from the village of Aburi — designed and created the coffins, Eversley’s creations are the most enduring image of the recent six-city, five-day Rites of Ancestral Return observances. Now, with the ancestors’ blessings, he may be on his way to becoming the premier refinishing company in Northeast United States.
Eversley credits “focus” for his success and he relates his personal story in Sankofa fashion; he never forgets to pay tribute “out of respect” to his Guyana roots for bringing him to where he is today. His journey to October 4 (when the chambers were lowered into the grounds from which the remains were exhumed during a 1991 excavation), is intricately connected to his late mother, Celestine Eversley.
My Mom, Celestine, had a business in Georgetown where I was born, selling groceries and vegetables, and that s where I got my start at the age of 10-12. I purchased apples to sell and make a profit from money received at Christmastime. His Dad worked at the Gettysburg dock as a stevedore. And Eversley sometimes worked there with him. I was raised to think and to make decisions for myself.
At Chatham High School, he connected through the media and books with men in American who spoke their minds: Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., and H. Rap Brown. “I connected with the suffering of African men. There was also the curiosity factor; although I never felt racism in Guyana, I was connecting with the experience in America. As an athlete, I was actually incensed, that I could be treated differently because of the difference in the color of my skin.
Eversley, 6 3 , was considered the best soccer player in the midfield position. Like the point guard in basketball, he controlled the offense and the defense, and basically ran the Santos Football Club team.
In 1979, he left Club to put the family s needs ahead of my own,” venturing to The Bronx, NY to find work. He eventually moved to Brooklyn where he, his wife of 31 years and their three children lived for a decade.
He found a job with a Manhattan piano restoration firm on East 19th Street where he became an expert sander, stripper and prepper for the guys who stained sprayed. He learned the art of touching up furniture from the craftsmen, there.
After 8 years, he joined Premier Technologies, a company specializing in historic restorations (St. Regis Hotel and The Jewish Museum) whose list includes Fortune 500 companies, for a touch-up artisan, and Eversley was ready for it. The clients would ask for me to come down. I was conscientious and focused on what I was doing. In 1989, company owner Mark Schlossberg promoted Eversley to manager of operations. You have the skills, he told Eversley. Later, with Schlossberg’s encouragement Eversley started his own business, Premier Restoration, which is located at the Premier Technologies site.
In 1991, “when I stopped at the African Burial Ground on my way to HSBC for a restoration job, I was just a stranger passing by. I never knew I would ever be involved. It got away from me until about 9 years later. One day Judy Kunoff, a building project manager, who knew of my restoration work, informed me that GSA was looking for an African American to build the burial chambers for the ancestral remains. I was drawn to it and to being involved in something so historic.
Brainstorming and planning sessions were called under the initial leadership of the project development director, Ron Law. Unfortunately, there was no connection between Eversley and Dallytex, makers of the Ghana-based coffin artisans. I just knew they were being made in Africa.
In the 5,000 square feet Premier Restoration shop, a dozen men, including his youngest son, 28, worked on the seven chambers. At times, Eversley, dressed in work clothes, assisted. I felt honored. I felt motivated to produce something respectful. And he did. In addition to producing the mahogany burial chambers, Eversley selected the Adinkra symbols that are attached to the seven chambers’ covers.’
Ron Law insisted that there be no nails in any part of the chambers; we used glue and wooden plugs. Everything was handmade.”
Over a period of time the mahogany chambers will disintegrate, naturally. That was the whole idea; everything will go back to the beginning; everything will go back to the natural state.
My life is reordered in so many ways because of this experience, he says. In school, I never had the detailed information on slavery. Until now, the images of the ships and the shackles, and remnants of history are all that I knew.
On October 4, I went down to the observance. I never knew I would feel so spiritually connected to the past; I could feel it in my body, in my bones. When the chambers were being lowered, I watched outside of the gate looking in, not inside on site. I wanted to feel connected to the people.