Challenges Ahead for UN Slavery Memorial

Jamaica's ambassador is determined to build a tribute despite some setbacks.

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One day, a memorial to the millions of slaves wrenched from their homes in Africa and transported to the Americas will stand on the plaza at the United Nations in New York. That is the goal of an ambitious ambassador to the United Nations from Jamaica.

However, the project does face some challenges. The design competition that was scheduled to end in December has now been extended to Jan. 23, and the United States, which co-sponsored a resolution proposing the memorial in 2007 (pdf), has yet to commit any funding to the project, which will cost millions to build.

None of that is discouraging Ambassador Raymond Wolfe, Jamaica's representative to the U.N. "We think it is ripe and fitting the international community should acknowledge this tragedy, the worst perhaps in humankind, which today would be described as a genocide and a crime against humanity," he said. With slavery still existing today, Wolfe said the memorial would also stand as a "sharp reminder that contemporary forms of slavery shall not be tolerated by the U.N."

There are already monuments to slavery, both in the United States and abroad, but Wolfe says a memorial in front of the visitors' entrance at the U.N. would bring a level of unparalleled visibility. With the newly opened Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Smithsonian set to open a National Museum of African American History and Culture, it seems the timing could not be better.

It is estimated that over five centuries, more than 18 million people were forcibly removed from Africa to the Americas, Caribbean and Europe. One of the reasons Jamaica's ambassador is so passionate about the memorial is his own history with slavery. It is estimated that as many as 700,000 slaves may have been brought to the island, and Wolfe can trace his family's roots to Africa. In fact, the Caribbean and South America received many more slaves than the United States, but it is the "Kunta Kinte of Roots" experience that many African Americans associate with the dark and ugly history of slavery.

But the more pressing matter is money. At the close of last year, the trust fund for the memorial was just over $1 million. At least $3.5 million more is needed to complete the project. Countries such as India, Australia and Turkey have donated but the United States has not. The money has to be appropriated by Congress. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) is working toward this goal but said it's "not an easy sell during a fiscal crisis." Still, Meeks, who can trace his mother's roots to slaves from Sierra Leone, is confident he can persuade enough members of Congress to appropriate some funding for the project.

"It is extremely important that there is a memorial to those individuals who suffered," he said. "Through their perseverance, hopes and dreams, we could have a Barack Obama as president of the United States."

Corporate sponsors are also being sought, but so far none have signed on. To make sure the memorial has the support it needs to move forward, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, was brought on as a partner as well. Meanwhile, a design artist is expected to be selected this year with the project possibly breaking ground in 2014.

Ambassador Wolfe said he would never entertain talk of halting the project because of funding. "It may be scaled down somewhat but we have no intention of scrapping it. This would be an insult to the international community and an insult to our ancestors if we were simply to, because of challenges, scrap the project."

Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @jwalkreporter.