By Bernice Elizabeth Green
Keith Eversley owns Premier Restoration on Van Dam Street, a brisk walk from the African Burial Ground site. The firm produces high-end furniture and specializes in milling and wood restoration for corporations. His company created — what he calls — the burial chambers which hold the coffins containing the remains of enslaved 17th- and 18th- century Africans who labored and eked out a living in Colonial New York.
The walnut-colored coffins – the most enduring image of last fall’s Rites of Ancestral Return — were produced by Dallytex, a manufacturer on Odoikwkaoi Road in the Ghana city of Accra, who employed artisans from the village of Aburi, famed for its great carving traditions. Those coffins and Eversley’s 1/4 -ton structures are the most requested image of last fall’s six-city, five-day Rites of Ancestral Return observances, notes Janine Fondon of the UnityFirst.com news wire and distribution service.
“I started in the restoration business in 1979 not knowing where it would lead me”, said the Guyana native, a former world-class soccer star who journeyed to the U.S. to find the opportunity that would help him send his children to college. “But I was focused on doing something with my hands, something that I could pass down to my children and other children. I wanted to learn a skill. I never chose this for myself, it just happened.”
He found an entry-level opening with a piano restoration firm on East 19th St. and became an expert at the arts of sanding, wood stripping, touching up furniture and prepping for the artisans who stained and sprayed.
He later joined Premier Technologies, a company specializing in historic restorations (St. Regis Hotel and The Jewish Museum), and was quickly promoted to manager of operations. Soon after, he started his own “premier” enterprise.
Before settling on Long Island, he lived with his wife of more than 30 years and their three children in the Prospect Heights area of Brooklyn.
History, Heritage: Always in View
Eversley’s Premier Restoration operates from the mist-green walls of a pristine, organzed office without a view. Overlooking his desk are distinctive clues to what matters.
On one wall is a framed poster of photographer Art Kane’s awesome “Great Day in Harlem” portrait of famous jazz musicians taken in 1958, around the year when tender-aged Keith began to take to going down to the Guyana piers to watch the ships come in. An enlarged detailed map of Lower Manhattan dominates the wall opposite the Kane masterpiece. Watching Eversley’s back from the credenza are framed pictures of his family. Nearby is a sheath of African Burial Ground files, stamped Burial Chambers. (The term “crypt” is shrouded in mystery and darkness, he explains. “It is disrespectful to the ancestors who have helped us see the light.”)
“The first time I stopped at the African Burial Ground on my way to my restoration job at HSBC bank, I was just a stranger passing by. I never knew I would be involved.” Ten years later, Judy Kunoff, a building project manager, informed him about GSA’s search for a person of African descent to build the reinterment burial chambers. “I was immediately drawn to the project and I was motivated to produce something respectful.”
At times, he traded his corporate suit for work clothes to assist his craftsmen with the planing, shaping, grooving, hand sanding and finishing.
There was no contact between Eversley and Ghana-based Dallytex, the firm that supervised the making of the coffins. “I knew the specifications and that they were being made in Africa.”
The chambers were completed in late August 2001. From January 2002 until a few days prior to the “Rites of Ancestral Return” observances beginning in September 30, they were stored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Connections: In Nature and In Spirit
The 7 mahogany chambers eventually will fragment and disintegrate. Eversley embraces the rationale for this planned degeneration of his work. “There are no nails in any part of the chambers; glue and wooden plugs were used for joinery. That was the whole idea – for everything to go back to a natural state.” Saturday, October 4, 2003, Eversley was a face in the crowd, as he stood peering through the high metal gates on Elk Street for a final glimpse of the 7 burial chambers — and the 419 coffins — as they were lowered into the earth. “I wanted to be with the people,” he said. “I never knew I could feel so spiritually connected. I could feel the connection deep in my bones.”