Challenges Ahead for UN Slavery Memorial

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


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.