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African Burial Ground

Location

New York, NY
United States

Excavation of a burial at the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan. Courtesy of the General Services Administration.

Description

The discovery of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan resonates as one of the largest as well as the earliest sites of 18th century slavery in the country. The origins of the African Burial Ground extend to the beginnings of Dutch settlement on the island of Manhattan. In 1626, the Dutch West Indies Company imported its first slaves from West Africa. The Dutch viewed slavery in a more ephemeral manner than their British counterparts1. For instance, Africans were allowed to obtain partial to full freedom status. Accordingly, freed slaves were allowed to purchase land and legally marry. They began purchasing land grants north of the Collect Pond, a spring fed pond located along a ravine in the area two blocks north of City Hall, to 34th Street2.

When the Dutch handed over power to the British in 1664, the African population had reached 40%. The British continued slave trading and by the Revolutionary War, New York had more slaves than the other colonies second to Charleston, South Carolina3.

Slavery in New York played an important role in the development of the colony as a major port city. Merchants depended on slaves for operating the port, building ships, farming, and milling4. Yet the treatment of slaves by the British was harsher than the Dutch. They imposed more restrictions and rescinded the rights of former freed slaves. Furthermore, the British imposed a ban on African burials in formal churchyards in Lower Manhattan in 16965

Under British rule, slaves were subjected to nighttime curfews and were not allowed to congregate in large groups6. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Africans began to use the area two blocks north of where City Hall is located today as a cemetery. The geography consisted of a ravine that ran east to northeast from Broadway to Collect Pond and was considered outside the city limits7. It is in this location that African slaves were allowed to congregate and practice their cultural traditions of night-time burials. Archaeologists estimated that over 20,000 burials exist in this seven-acre plot8.

As the population grew in the late 18th and 19th centuries, city commissioners began to expand the grid system north of Lower Manhattan by filling in the ravine with rocks and soil from the rolling hills along Broadway9. They laid out new streets along the city’s grid system, which facilitated residential and commercial development. The area that was once the largest African Burial Ground became largely forgotten as development began over the cemetery. Africans began burying their dead in the Lower East Side near Chrystie and Delancey Streets10.

In 1990, the General Services Administrations began construction of a 34-story office tower and a four-story pavilion on the site at 290 Broadway. The property belonged to the Federal Government. Therefore, GSA had to comply with Section 106 mitigation of the National Historic Preservation Act, which legally enforced historic and archaeological investigations prior to construction. Historic Conservation and Interpretation, a small archaeological consulting firm, was hired to survey the area for any archaeological remains. Despite the location of the burial ground on a 1755 map, archaeologists felt that 19th and 20th century development would have obliterated any remains of the cemetery11.

When excavations began in July 1991, several skeletal remains were recovered. One year later, 390 burials were removed and GSA intended to remove 200 additional burials12. The local African American community along with preservationists became concerned about the preservation of the cemetery and the skeletal analysis conducted at Lehman College. Congressman and Chairman of the House of Representatives on Buildings and Grounds Augustus Savage informed GSA that funding would be stopped until the matters concerning the burial ground were renegotiated. Construction soon stopped, and the archaeological excavations were taken over by John Milner and Associates13. The remains were relocated to Howard University’s Department of Anthropology. President George H. Bush signed a law prohibiting the construction of the pavilion site and approved a $3 million fund for a memorial site on the burial ground14.

Dr. Michael L. Blakey led the analysis conducted by the Howard University's team of physical anthropologists. The Howard team discovered, after years of analysis and historical and genetic research, a plethora of information about 18th century slavery in New York City - a subject that not been well documented in the past. They found that there was a distinction between African born and American born slaves. The skeletal remains showed some individuals with filed teeth in hourglass shapes, which is a cultural tradition prevalent in West Africa15. Several female burials indicated rings on the base of the skull due to carrying heavy loads on their heads, another West African tradition. Infant mortality was extremely high - approximately 40% of the burials were infants.

Based on lesions found on the bones, slaves suffered from hard physical labor and malnutrition. Some of the anthropologists assert that the bone pathologies indicated slaves were literally “worked to death"16. Blakey discovered that the skeletal remains of American born slaves exhibited more lesions, suggesting that the daily hardships posed by slavery in American colonies was more pervasive than daily life in Africa17.

Despite the racial injustices that resulted from slavery, the burial ground exemplifies that Africans were able to preserve their cultural practices. The alignment and spatial placement of the graves illustrate religious practices and familial associations. The burials were aligned in an east-west orientation, analogous to the belief that when the dead rose their heads would be facing the rising sun18. Some of the women were buried with infants and stillborn children. There were a number of grave goods buried with the remains including glass beads, shells, pocket knives, and tobacco pipes.

One of most intriguing burials found was burial 101. The burial contained a male adult who had a heart shaped symbol, known as the Sankofa symbol, on the coffin19. This symbol permeated among the Akon people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which they used in ritual ceremonies. The Sankofa symbol was derived from an image of a bird turning to scratch its back, and it also symbolizes “turning one’s head toward the past in order to build on the future"20.

Since documents about slavery in the North during the 18th century are scarce, the African Burial Ground serves as an important reminder that it was prevalent in all colonies. The African Burial Ground was designated as a National Historic Landmark and a New York City Landmark in 1993 and as a National Historic Monument in 2006. The 419 burials were reburied on October 4, 2003. In October of 2007, a memorial was opened at 290 Broadway designed by Rodney Léon. An Interpretive Center on the ground floor of 290 Broadway showcases five public art projects funded by GSA through the Arts and Architecture program.

Designation Status

1993 - African Burial Ground and the Commons Historic District designated New York City Landmark

1993 - African Burial Ground designated National Historic Landmark

2006 - African Burial Ground designated National Historic Monument

Aerial view of the African Burial Ground National Monument. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Current Status

The current site of the African Burial Ground consists of the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway, which holds an interpretive center on the first floor for the burial ground. The center features 5 public artworks commissioned and funded by the General Services Administration. "Unearthed" by Frank Bender, sculptor and forensic artist, is a bronze sculpture inspired by three of the individuals removed from the burial ground. "America Song" by Clyde Lynds is a sculpture composed of granite, concrete and fiber optics, and features an Indian headdress and feathers. At night, the sculpture is illuminated by the fiber optics.

The other public artworks include "The New Ring Shout" by Houston Conwell, "Africa Rising" by Barbara Chase-Riboud, "Renewal" by Tomie Arai, and "Untitled" by Roger Brown.The 419 burials were reburied in the location they were originally discovered, adjacent to the 34-story building. An African Burial Memorial designed by Rodney Léon was placed over the burial ground. Composed of granite, the memorial features seven design elements: Wall of Remembrance, Ancestral Pillars, Memorial Wall, Ancestral Chamber, Circle of Diaspora, Spiral Procession Ramp, and Ancestral Libation Court.

Preservation Campaigns

  • The rediscovery of the African Burial Ground in 1991 revealed illuminating information about a time in history less documented in terms of slavery in northern colonies. The preservation and interpretation of the burial ground has endured heated debates among the descendants, preservationists, and politicians due to the construction that threatened to desecrate the cemetery.

    In 1987, the General Services Administration released plans to build a 34-story building at 290 Broadway with an adjacent four-story pavilion at Duane and Elk Streets. Since the property was owned by the federal government, GSA had to comply with Section 106 mitigation of the National Historic Preservation Act. This stipulates that federally funded projects are required to conduct archaeological and historical surveys of the property. GSA signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in March 1989 21. They hired Historic Conservation and Interpretation, a small archaeological consulting firm, to conduct research and an archaeological survey of the site. Although the HCI found a 1755 map that showed an African Burial Ground two blocks north of City Hall, archaeologists reasoned that 19th and 20th century development would have destroyed any remains22. By 1991, they discovered several well intact burials. Historically, city commissioners filled the area with soil and rocks that had inadvertently protected the burials from future impact. In October of 1991, GSA held a press conference to release the discoveries of the burial ground. William Diamond, head of GSA, ensured the public that the safety of the burial ground was the top priority of the project23. Due to the discovery of the burials the memorandum with ACHP was amended in August 1991, however GSA continued removing burials.

    Community Opposition

    As the African American community became aware of the discovery, and HCI continued excavating the remains, they grew concerned about the methodology of the project. Consensus among the descendants and preservationists was that excavation should stop, the burials should be re-interred, and a memorial should be implemented at the site 24. However, dispute arose over whether the skeletal remains that had been removed should still be analyzed or immediately reburied. Another objection to GSA’s methods was the lack of an African American presence during the excavation process. Federal guidelines stipulated that the descendants of the burial ground should be included in all of these processes25. Mayor David Dinkins, the first African American mayor in New York City, instigated a coalition of local politicians including Senator Paterson (now Governor of New York), African American activists, and preservationists (Municipal Art Society and the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission) to address the concern over how the burial ground excavation was being facilitated.

    GSA grew weary of the escalating development costs posed by the discovery, and the long process of excavation (3 to 5 days per burial). They enforced HCI to work longer hours; the archaeology team began working a grueling schedule of 12-hour days, 7 days a week. It was also recommended that the team switch to a shovel excavation style in order to expedite the removal. When Senator Paterson caught wind of this change, he alerted The New York Times and formed a task force to supervise the excavation26. HCI never switched to this method and continued the careful, meticulous removal. In February 1992, trouble arose when a backhoe accidentally destroyed 20 burials; HCI had been using an outdated map denoting the area as sterile27. The analysis of the remains at Lehman College was also criticized because analysts were using newspaper to wrap the bones when acid free tissue paper was recommended as more appropriate.

    Peggy King Jorde, a member of the Mayor's office, contacted Dr. Michael Blakey, an African American physical anthropologist and associate professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., to inform him of the African Burial Ground discovery. Blakey had plenty of experience with skeletal analysis, and was the curator of the Cobb Biological Anthropology Lab whose collection consisted mostly of skeletons of African descent. He made regular visits to the burial ground, recruited black researchers, and galvanized community support28.

    Jennifer Raab, then NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair, criticized HCI and GSA’s research design plan because it lacked organization, and had not been changed since the initial discovery of the burials. Edward Rutsch, head of the HCI archaeology team, resigned from the project due to mounting opposition, and acknowledged that the burial ground had become too large for his small firm to handle29. GSA hired John Milner and Associates to replace HCI because they had experience excavating two major African American cemeteries in Pennsylvania.

    The African American community began holding public meetings in opposition to the burial ground excavation. They also held spiritual ceremonies on the burial ground site and at Lehman College. By June 1992, 390 burials had been recovered with a plan to remove an additional 200 graves30. Mayor Dinkins sent William Diamond of GSA a letter requesting that the excavation of the burial ground be stopped. Diamond rejected Dinkins' request citing that he had complied with federal regulations and would continue moving forward with the project.

    Gus Savage, an African American congressman from Illinois and the head of the committee that oversees the federal agency for the project, held a congressional hearing on the project31. He informed GSA that funding would be stopped for the project. Several days later, President George H. Bush signed a law officially stopping the project. In order to implement a new research design plan, GSA created an advisory panel of historians, archaeologists, members of the descendants, and local politicians. The panel decided the burials should be analyzed at Howard College in Washington, D.C., and once the analysis was completed, the 419 burials would be returned to the burial ground32. They also agreed that a memorial and an interpretive center should be created for the site. In November of 1993, the African American Burial Ground was designated a National Historic Landmark. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the burial ground as part of a historic district that includes the Commons and City Hall Park to the south, Foley Square, and Duane Street33.

    On October 4, 2003, the remains of the 419 slaves were reburied on the location where they were discovered. The ceremony consisted of a six day event that began at Howard University where the remains had been placed in mahogany coffins. They were transported to Philadelphia, Newark, Wilmington, and Baltimore where a ceremony was held in each of the five cities. The journey culminated in New York City when the remains were carried on a boat to a port in Lower Manhattan - the port signified where the original slave trading ships used to dock 200 years ago34. Reverend James A. Forbes, Jr. of Riverside Church presided over the ceremony, and a Yoruba priest blessed the remains before they were lowered into the earth35.

    The memorial was completed and opened for visitors on October 1, 2007. Composed of polished granite, the 15,000 square foot memorial features seven design elements. The most telling element is the triangular structure known as the “Ancestral Chamber.” It represents the middle passage across the Atlantic Ocean during the slave trade. After leaving the ancestral chamber, the visitor is presented with a spiral memorial wall featuring 20 religious symbols inspired by the African diaspora. The floor of the monument consists of a world map centered on the West African coast with sun rays radiating towards North America, Brazil, Europe, and the Caribbean islands36. The memorial continues to serve as a pilgrimage site for Africans from all over the world. Mayor David Dinkins once said that “the African Burial Ground is irrefutable testimony to the contributions and suffering of our ancestors37.

Archives, Personal files, and Ephemera

Archaeology Report/Skeletal Biology Report Bound Copies available African Burial Ground Project Office of Public Education and Interpretation (OPEI)
290 Broadway New York, NY 10007
212-637-2039
  • 1. Harris, Gale, Jean Hawson and Betsy Bradley. African Burial Ground and the Commons Historic District Designation Report. NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, 1993.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Harrington, Spencer PM. "Bones and Bureaucrats: New York's Great Cemetery Imbrogolio." Archaeology Magazine. March/April, 1993.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall. "'We Were Here': The African Presence in Colonial New York." In Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City Yale University Press, 2003, p.277-297.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Harrington, Spencer PM. "Bones and Bureaucrats: New York's Great Cemetery Imbrogolio." Archaeology Magazine. March/April, 1993.
  • 8. Kaufman, Ned. "Heritage and the Cultural Politics of Preservation: The African Burial Ground and the Audubon Ballroom." In Place, Race, and Story: Essays in the Past and Future of Historic Preservation. Routledge: New York 2009, p. 296-308.
  • 9. Harris, Gale, Jean Hawson and Betsy Bradley. African Burial Ground and the Commons Historic District Designation Report. NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, 1993.
  • 10. Harrington, Spencer PM. "Bones and Bureaucrats: New York's Great Cemetery Imbrogolio." Archaeology Magazine. March/April, 1993.
  • 11. Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall, 2003: p.277-297.
  • 12. Kaufman, 2009: p. 296-308.
  • 13. Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall, 2003: p.277-297.
  • 14. Kaufman, 2009: p.296-308.
  • 15. Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall, 2003: p.277-297.
  • 16. Ibid, p.291.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. "Return to the African Burial Ground: Interview with Physical Anthropologist Michael L. Blakey." Archaeology Magazine November 20, 2003.
  • 20. Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall, 2003: p. 290.
  • 21. >Draft Management Recommendations for the African Burial Ground. National Park Service U.S. Department of Interior.
  • 22. Harrington, Spencer PM. "Bones and Bureaucrats: New York's Great Cemetery Imbrogolio." Archaeology Magazine March/April, 1993.
  • 23. Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall. "'We Were Here': The African Presence in Colonial New York." In Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City Yale University Press, 2003, p.277-297.
  • 24. Ibid.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. Harrington, Spencer PM. "Bones and Bureaucrats: New York's Great Cemetery Imbrogolio." Archaeology Magazine March/April, 1993.
  • 28. Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall, 2003: p.277-297.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Kaufman, Ned. "Heritage and the Cultural Politics of Preservation: The African Burial Ground and the Audubon Ballroom." In Place, Race, and Story: Essays in the Past and Future of Historic Preservation. Routledge: New York 2009, p.296-308.
  • 31. Ibid.
  • 32. Draft Management Recommendations for the African Burial Ground. National Park Service U.S. Department of Interior.
  • 33. Dunlap, David W. "African Burial Ground Made Historic Site." The New York Times February 26, 1993.
  • 34. http://www.africanburialground.gov/ABG_AnAfricanAmericanHomecoming.htm
  • 35. Kennedy, Randy. "Gray Skies Match Mood at Reburial." The New York Times October 5, 2003.
  • 36. Lee, Jennifer S. "African Burial Ground Memorial to Open on Friday." The New York Times October 1, 2007.
  • 37. Cantwell, Anne-Marie and Diana diZerega Wall, 2003: p. 294.