African Burial Ground National Monument: New York’s First Below Ground Landmark

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Annotated photographic wall of skeletal remains, exhumed from African Burial Ground at the museum. (Photo by Chaitram Aklu)

By Chaitram Aklu

On February 14, 2019, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate to name the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan, the African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Educational Center. It noted that the African Burial Ground is “unlike any other anthropological and symbolic site in the United States or the world,” – and it “includes DNA samples from the remarkably well-preserved human remains that will enable researchers to trace the home roots in Africa of those individuals buried in the African Burial Ground.” It is New York City’s “first below ground landmark” and the United States “earliest and largest African American cemetery to be rediscovered.”

In September 1991, demolition and excavation began, without any fanfare, for the erection of a 34-storey Federal office building in Lower Manhattan, in the block bounded by Broadway, Reade Street, Elk Street and Duane Street. At the time I was involved in a project and was working on the fifth floor at 22 Reade Street and excavation was taking place right along the northern foundation of the building. Shortly after excavation work began, human skeletal remains were unearthed from a depth of 25-30 feet below the surface. It was then that things took a dramatic turn that no one had anticipated. As word got out there was a tremendous outcry to preserve the site. There was something sacred about the place.

A petition was signed by over 16,000 people from far and wide and a daily vigil was held at the site in a determined effort to preserve the site. The protest bore fruit and in 1993 the site was designated a National Historic Landmark. Then on February 27, 2006 about 15,000- square foot of the excavated area was preserved and a National Historic Monument erected. This area is only 0.34 acre of the larger 6.6 acre original cemetery.

In 1640, the African American population (consisted of both free men and slaves) in New Amsterdam, then owned by the Dutch represented about 20 percent of the entire population of the city. The Dutch treated slaves better – they were allowed to be baptized, learn to read, earn wages, in some cases own property, and marry legally. However because of “mortuary apartheid” they could not be buried in the same cemetery as whites. They were buried in a 6.6 acre African cemetery north of the official graveyard served by Trinity Church.

When the British captured New Amsterdam (part of a much larger area that included New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) in 1664 they renamed it New York and introduced a rigid justice system on the Africans. Some of the new laws are on display in the Museum. Those rights and privileges enjoyed under Dutch rule were revoked. Although the Dutch recaptured it in 1673, it was ceded back to the British in 1674 by the Treaty of Westminster which renewed the 1667 Treaty of Breda. The Dutch gained Surinam in South America.

The cemetery was in operation from the 1630s to 1795.

There were no laws to protect and preserve African burial grounds and the under the British, the city expanded and the burial ground was covered over by the concrete jungle of buildings and streets.

Advocates and protesters for preservation of the sacred site were able to successfully use a 1966 law which required that “a cultural resources survey that includes field testing on a site” when construction using public funds was to be undertaken.
Meanwhile, scientists and scholars from institutions such as Howard University became involved in monitoring the excavation and recording the process through meticulous measurements, photographing and documenting each discovery at the exact site during the 1991-1992 excavation period. They then removed of the remains, catalogued, studied and stored the remains.

The analysis of the 419 exhumed skeletal remains and artifacts recovered, revealed that nine percent of the children were under age two, while 32 percent were below the age of puberty. The analysis also determined that of the 59 percent of adult burials, nearly two-thirds were males and death rate among men and women age 15-25 was higher compared to the European population. This would hardly be surprising given the hard physical labor Africans had to endure. The photographs of all the remains, with annotations showing age and sex are displayed prominently in the Museum and interpretative center.

All 419 exhumed remains were reburied in 2003 in a Rites of Ancestral Return Ceremony in the 15,000- square foot National Monument. The actual burial sites are easily recognized by mounds at the site. The estimated number of burials in the entire cemetery is approximately 15,000.

In some cases coffins were buried in layers, which I was able to see first-hand when I was allowed a few privileged (but restricted) access down in the active excavation site.
The displays provide interesting insights into life and death of people who were buried there. Found one of the coffins is a heart-shaped design made from 93 nails on the coffin lid. It proved to be a Sankofa – an Ashanti symbol meaning “return to the past to build the future.” The origin was traced to Ghana and Ivory Coast.

The African Burial Ground Museum and Interpretive Center (opened February 27, 2010) at 290 Broadway, is administered by the National Park Service and is free to the public.

A visit includes access to three areas: first to the visitor center and viewing of a 20- minute video (optional) and then the interactive centers; then explore the building’s rotunda with artifacts and a history of the cemetery posted on large print panels, and an informative circular inlaid design The New Ring Shout, on the marble floor; finish with a walk through of the 0.34 acre outdoor grounds of National Monument (made up of the Ancestral Chamber, Circle of the Diaspora, and Ancestral Reinterment Ground) where the remains were reinterred. This area is only 0.34 acre of the 6.6 acre of the original cemetery.

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