The African Burial Ground – Honoring Decedents – Centuries Later

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Recently I spent an intense afternoon visiting the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan.  I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know this National Monument existed until a few weeks ago but now that I have been there, I think every New Yorker should go.  Here is why:

(N.B. I don’t profess to be an expert on the Burial Ground – everything that follows I learned from literature distributed at the monument as well as  a tour of the Visitor’s Center, augmented by Wikipedia and The New York Times)

The history of the Burial Ground begins in the 1600’s when the Dutch and then the English controlled New York City.  The city was so tiny at first that it ended at Wall Street (where there was an actual wall).  Both the Dutch and English owned slaves.  In fact, there were many enslaved Africans in the city. Their lives were horrifically difficult and short due to extremely hard labor, poor nutrition, punishments and illness.

In the early 1700’s, the city created a large (6.6 acres – approximately five square city blocks) burial ground for non-whites (and indigent whites, British soldiers and foreign sailors) outside of the city wall, a block north of today’s Chambers Street.  On early maps it is called the “Negros Burial Ground”.  Between 1712 and 1795 approximately  15,000 -20,00 people were buried there.  There were laws that required African burials be conducted after dusk and limited the number of attendees to less than twelve.

North of the burial ground was a hill, 110 feet high.  When the city grew and more space was needed, the city tore down that hill and spread it over the burial ground.  Eventually roads and buildings were erected right over all of those thousands of decedents.

Two hundred years passed and in the early 1990’s work began on a new federal building at 290 Broadway.  The city and the federal government knew that there had once been a cemetery on the property, but they claimed that no one suspected how many decedents were buried (and still remained) there.  Workers were surprised to uncover many, many bodies (90% were in coffins).  The remains were remarkably well-preserved, having been covered over by that hill so many years ago.

Quietly, with no public disclosure, work on the building continued while archeologists were still digging up remains.  Eventually 419 bodies were uncovered, crated up and brought  to Lehman College (CUNY) in the Bronx.  The public remained unaware of the story until, according to the National Park Ranger who spoke to us,  “a newspaper reporter found out”.  Controversy and protests ensued once the public learned of the disgraceful treatment of  the human remains.  The federal government was shamed into setting aside funds to study the site and  to create a National Monument there.  The human remains were transferred to Howard University (a traditionally-black college) for study and eventually they were re-interred at the site in a special ceremony.

The researchers at Howard learned a lot about the slave population in New York City.  The studies revealed the critical importance of slave labor in creating New York City. According to the National Park Service, “about one-quarter of colonial New York’s labor force was enslaved”.  Our city was built on the backs of slaves who created the original city and even built a “highway” all the way up to 110th Street when the area was a forest.

There was a contest to design the memorial, which was opened in 2007.  I think it is stunning.

Circle of the Diaspora

Ancestral Chamber

Around the corner, on Broadway, a  Visitor’s Center opened in 2010.  Entering the Center is similar to passing through security at JFK (except you can keep your shoes on).  Once inside, you can spend hours studying the various exhibits.  Make sure to catch the excellent 20 minute video, preceded by a talk from a Park Ranger.  In the middle of the Visitor’s Center is a simulated funeral for a man and a child who had died “of fever” and the video tells their story.

Around the circumference of the room are exhibits on the history of Africans in New York City including a copy of a will from 1684 that is “the only will in existence prepared by an African in early New York”.

In addition there is an exhibit about the will of a slaveholder.

There are also exhibits on some of the New York City laws concerning slaves and drawers containing replicas of some of the grave-goods that were recovered from the site including beads from Africa, a silver pendant, cuff-links and buttons.

Although it is not a “fun” outing, I think it is important for all New Yorkers to learn the history of our city and to show respect at the resting place of so many of the people whose suffering built our city.  If you have not been, you should go, seriously.


3 Responses to “The African Burial Ground – Honoring Decedents – Centuries Later”

  1. 1 Ranger Cyrus March 12, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I am pleased to see that your visit to our site had such a moving impact! Thank you for sharing our story with the world! Please feel free to return any time!

    • 2 marysuedonsky March 12, 2012 at 1:09 pm

      Thank you for writing! In fact, my LAW 2301 (Estates, Trusts and Wills) students and I are scheduled to visit on March 24!

  1. 1 Photos From Our Visit to the African Burial Ground « The Dearly Departed Trackback on March 25, 2012 at 3:18 pm

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