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African Burial Ground Interpretive Center in NYC

A new burial ground discovered in Georgia



The African Burial Ground Project: Remnants of Slavery in America


The island of Manhattan was the entryway for many slaves
Samuel Angola was kidnapped from his home. His Christian captors labeled him with a first name and his last name came from his home country. Imprisoned by European slave traders and taken away from his home village in West Africa, he survived six weeks on board a filthy, disease-ridden slave ship. When he arrived in America, it was not to the welcome that most European immigrants received. Instead of standing on the deck and watching the Dutch city of New Amsterdam appear on the horizon, he lay in the bowels of the putrid ship, shackled to a corpse and a woman who had given birth to a baby during their inhumane journey.

When he arrived in Manhattan, he was brought to an auctioning block in the area that we know today as Wall Street. This was where slave traders placed their bids for him and other able-bodied Africans. After they were sold, the Africans were then forced into agonizing labor for their "masters" in the cotton and tobacco fields of the south, the shipyards of the northeast, and households across the new colonies.

Slavery certainly wasn't just a southern phenomenon, as we've come to view it these days. New York, renamed from New Amsterdam when the British took the city from the Dutch, would have the second largest population of enslaved Africans on the eve of the American Revolution. Slaves were used in the city to accomplish the backbreaking work of creating an industrial urban center. A man who needed a strong slave to work on lengthening and widening the city's main street, Broadway Avenue, bought Samuel. Samuel was seen as a commodity, to be bought and sold as another man's property. When he died, no records were left of him except his age, gender, and physical condition, which were marked into a slave ledger. Neither Samuel nor any other Africans were allowed to be buried in the town's Trinity Church graveyard. All blacks were to be placed instead in the African Burial ground, just outside city limits, where perhaps 20,000 blacks would eventually be laid to rest over a period of 78 years. This cemetery became an important meeting place for Africans, who were not allowed to be seen talking with each other in groups larger than three. It was only at funerals that they could assemble in bigger numbers without the threat of whipping or other punishment hanging over their heads. Because of this, the grounds became sacred to the African Americans who lived there, and the descendants who came after them.

Khalil shows us the African burial ground
The history of this graveyard is heavily embedded in the history of one of the largest cities on Earth. New York grew from an "island of rolling hills" (that's what Manhattan translates to) into a bustling metropolis of almost 10 million people today. As the city ran out of space to spread, it began to grow upward. Each generation of buildings in New York was stacked on top of the last and the skyline rose higher and higher. It was not rare that on one city block ten or twelve different buildings stood on one spot at different times in New York history. The graveyard became a row of stores and even a parking lot before the US Government decided to bulldoze the lot and the land underneath, to build a new federal building.

Bulldozers don't belong in graveyards, and skyscrapers shouldn't be built upon bodies. But try telling that to the U.S. government. In 1992, this destruction of the first African burial ground in the United States occurred in the heart of lower Manhattan. As blueprints were drawn for a 34-story federal office building to be erected on the site of the old parking lot, archeologists began to dig into the earth looking for the existence of important historical remains. (They were following a 1966 Federal law designed to protect important sites from destruction before any public buildings are put up). What the archeologists found were exactly that: extremely important historical remains 16 feet below ground level. They had penetrated the 5 to 6 acre site of Samuel's 18th century African burial ground. As they worked, they uncovered hundreds of African skeletons that would provide amazing new insight into the colonial African American experience; both slave and free, in New York City.

The coins on this monument contain pictures of famous black leaders
But what does one do when faced with the dilemma of conflicting interests? The government wanted to build a skyscraper in this busy financial district to house organizations like the FBI, CIA and EPA. The African American community wanted to preserve and memorialize the final resting-place of thousands of their ancestors. Whose interests should be considered? What rights come into play? Was compromise possible? An agreement was finally hammered out, though certainly one that was less than ideal.

The entire sequence of events following the excavation of the first bone was pretty offensive to the African American community. At first, the government did an extremely rushed job removing over 400 different bodies from the area. They wanted the area cleared so they could begin construction as soon as possible. The bones and artifacts were then improperly wrapped in newspaper and stored in a musty, humid gymnasium at a local college. All the while, activists were pleading that the bones of their ancestors be treated with respect. They wanted time to consider different feelings on the site. Some people felt that the bones should never have been removed in the first place. Others felt that it was OK to remove them, but wanted them studied carefully by African American scholars before being replaced in the soil that they came from. Others demanded that all construction must halt on the new building.

The struggle is not exactly over today. The large federal building was built, but minus a small grass area that has now been sectioned off and identified as a site of the African burial ground. 5 pieces of artwork where then placed in the federal building to honor the importance of the sacred ground it was built upon. The 400 + skeletons were relocated to Howard University in D.C. where they have been properly stored and studied by leading African American scientists. While these gestures are certainly attempts to alleviate the dispute, they are simply too half-hearted for many. To begin with, the artwork at the Federal Building was commissioned (chosen) by the federal government, and not by the African-American community. The artists are predominantly NOT black. And since it resides in a federal building, the art is pretty much off limits to the public anyway unless you're being led on a guided tour and are willing to pass through an X-ray and security checkpoint.

When will African Americans be completely free?
Currently, the Education and Interpretation center of the African Burial Ground project are planning a permanent memorial. It is unclear when the memorial will be put into place, but people everywhere eagerly await this community-based project.

Another issue at hand is that the funding for the DNA research on the excavated skeletons has run out. To date, scientists have already determined from the bones that the Africans were extremely overworked, alarmingly undernourished and had an incredibly high death rate, especially amongst young girls. They are even able to tell which area of Africa the bodies came from, information that was never before available to modern descendants of slaves. Although there are many stories that the bones have left to tell, scientists at Howard University cannot continue their work without money, and so the project has been put on hold. This aggravates many community members who want answers about their ancestors and want their bones then placed back into the soil.

How would you feel if your ancestors were buried under humongous skyscrapers? What would you do if you knew the answers to your ancestors' history were hidden in drawers at a college, unable to be discovered because there wasn't enough money to do it? Can you think of a good way to educate the public about this burial ground without being able to show it to them beneath the hustle and bustle of the financial district? These are all questions that the Interpretation and Education center hopes to someday answer.

Be like Teddy, love your momma
Teddy and I believe that the more people learn about this site and its controversy, the better this type of conflict will be handled in the future. No one should have to watch as their ancestors' bones are disregarded in death as much as they were in a life of slavery. Someday a true compromise can hopefully be reached between government "progress" and tradition and history. When that happens, the descendants of Samuel and all other Africans in America will have the right to honor and remember their dead in whatever way their community deems appropriate.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

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Daphne - Sing out strong and loud! I speak Gullah, and I'm proud!
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Stephanie - The Natchez Indians give the old heave-ho to the French
Rebecca - Mose, Florida: Paradise among mosquitoes and tropical heat
Neda - Dive! Dive! Discover the secrets of the Henrietta Marie
MAD - Reparations: Payback for slavery
Nick - The rebellion is on!