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African Burial Ground Project

African Burial Ground Project

In the summer of 1991, during preparation for a federal office building in lower Manhattan, archaeologists unearthed an eighteenth-century cemetery that had been appropriated for use by Africans and African-descended people in colonial New York. The five- to six-acre sitethe oldest and largest colonial cemetery ever excavated in North Americais estimated to have been the final resting place of between 10,000 and 20,000 people before its closing in the 1790s. Although researchers have not uncovered recorded evidence of the burial ground's existence before 1712, the presence of a free black community in the vicinity

as early as the 1640s suggests earlier origins. The excavated portionless than one city block long and located today just north of City Hallis bounded by Duane, Reade, and Elk Streets and Broadway. The cemetery had survived for more than 200 years after its closing because of the topography of the original site. During the colonial period the African Burial Ground was located outside the palisades in a low-lying area near the "Collect," also called Fresh Water Pond. As the city expanded at the end of the eighteenth century, between sixteen and twenty-eight feet of fill was used to grade the area. That soil fill protected the graves from destruction as roadways and buildings were constructed.

The rediscovery of the cemetery generated a great deal of interest within the African-American community, especially in New York City, where residents demanded proper memorialization and study. Their activism led to the burial ground's designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1993, and to the General Services Administration (the federal agency responsible for construction on the site) funding a multidisciplinary study of both the disinterred remains and the society in which New York Africans lived and labored during the colonial era. The research team, drawn from across the nation, conducted its work under the auspices of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

For nearly a dozen years, scholars in biological anthropology, history, and archaeology examined the 419 sets of skeletal remains, studied thousands of artifacts, and combed through thousands of documentary sources as they sought to reconstruct the lives of persons interred in

the African Burial Ground, most of whom were enslaved. Researchers pursued a diasporic approach that drew on the expertise of specialists in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as those familiar with the experiences of African peoples in colonial America. This methodology reflected recognition of the relevance of origins and the significance of experiences New York Africans may have had before they arrived in the colonial city.

The African Burial Ground Project was also distinguished by the extent to which it involved the public, especially New York's African-American community. The project considered that community to be its "ethical client," and the study was conducted with the community's permission and input. The public was most directly engaged through the efforts of the project's Office of Public Education and Information, which conducted workshops and sponsored tours of significant African-American sites around the city. A reading room with literature on the African presence in New York was also established.

The African Burial Ground not only offered researchers the opportunity to study the African presence in colonial New York, but also to investigate the broad dimensions of the African-American experience. The site provides a unique vantage point from which to study ethnic origins, physical stressors, and assimilation, as well as cultural continuities and resistance. Heretofore, slavery in a northern, urban setting had been considered mild and devoid of the odious features that characterized the institution in a southern, plantation setting. The physical remains suggested otherwise, however. They revealed high infant mortality, significantly elevated death rates among women of the fifteen to twenty-five age range, and a life expectancy that was much shorter than that enjoyed by European Americans. Anthropologists observed numerous fractures, spinal and limb joint degeneration, enlarged muscle attachments, and other musculoskeletal stress markers, apparently as a result of strenuous physical labor. Nearly half of those disinterred from the site were children, and they were found to have suffered from a variety of ailments, including nutritional deficiencies, dental pathologies, and developmental defects such as slowed, disrupted, or stunted growth.

Historical study has confirmed the often arduous and diverse labor experiences of New York Africans and documented the ways in which ethnic origins and experiencesas well as the nature of slavery within colonial New Yorkmay have shaped black social institutions. However, both archaeological and documentary evidenceincluding beads fashioned into a belt that encircled the waist of a woman, a silver earring that appears to have been strung around the neck of a child, the discovery of crystals, and references to "shake-down" dancingsuggest the rich culture of New York's African population.

The disinterred remains were reinterred on October 4, 2003, following a two-day journey of four representative sets of remains from Howard University to the cities of Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Newark, and then finally to the memorial site in New York. There, they were met by hundreds of African Americans who had gathered to honor the men, women, and children who had built the colonial city and left a legacy of dignity and humanity in the face of oppression.

The anthropological, archaeological, and historical research serves as a reminder that the African presence in America was national, and that the institution of slavery, although differing from one region to another, shared characteristics that sought to dehumanize and debase the enslaved. But in their refusal to think of themselves as someone's property, New York Africans asserted their humanity in myriad ways, especially in the manner in which they commended loved ones to a final resting place.

See also Africanisms; Archaeology and Archaeologists; Cemeteries and Burials; Historians and Historiography


Blakey, Michael L., and Lesley Rankin-Hill, eds. "The New York African Burial Ground Skeletal Biology Final Report." United States General Services Administration, Northeast and Caribbean Region, 2004.

Howson, Jean, Warren Perry, et al. "The New York African Burial Ground Archaeology Draft Report." United States General Services Administration, Northeast and Caribbean Region, 2004.

Medford, Edna Greene, ed. "The New York African Burial Ground History Final Report." United States General Services Administration, Northeast and Caribbean Region, 2004.

United States General Services Administration. "African Burial Ground: Return to the Past in Order to Build the Future." Available from

edna greene medford (2005)

michael l. blakey (2005)

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