In 1991, excavators discovered a burial ground in lower Manhattan. Today, it's the African Burial Ground National Monument.
In Manhattan, buildings rise in the blink of in eye. The iconic skyline contains very few remnants of the city’s earliest history, not just because they would be dwarfed by modern skyscrapers, but because relatively few have survived into the 21st century due to fire, decay, and modern construction.
A Startling Discovery
In September of 1991, construction workers began excavating a lot near Duane and Reade streets in lower Manhattan in preparation for the construction of a 34-story government office building. As the crew dug their way down, they were startled to come across what were undoubtedly human remains nearly 30 feet below the surface.
Construction was immediately halted and archaeologists were called in to examine what turned out to be an old African burial ground. Eventually it would be deemed “one of New York’s most significant archaeological discoveries.”
Excavators had initially found 13 bodies where the workers had been digging. Soon this number would expand to include over 15,000 skeletons uncovered in an area spanning over six-and-a-half acres (archaeologists estimate as many as 20,000 people were buried there). The remains included men, women, and children.
The interred were laborers, mariners, and even British soldiers, all buried with remnants of their past lives. But what made the gravesite such an important archaeological find was the one thing that tied these people together: they were all free blacks or slaves.
Blacks In Colonial New York
New York had a particularly interesting relationship with slavery. An important port, slaves had been part of the city’s economy since the Dutch brought the first enslaved African with them in 1625. Neither as ferociously abolitionist as its New England neighbors nor as intensely pro-slavery as the future Confederate states, New York’s complicated views on the issue are very succinctly reflected in its local manumission organization.
The New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves was founded in 1785 to protest slavery in the state, and to protect the rights of both slaves and free blacks living there. The society’s more famous members included John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, who eventually succeeded in helping pass the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1799.
Contradictory, many members of the Manumission Society were actually slaveholders themselves. Hamilton attempted to instate a requirement stipulating all potential members be required to free their slaves, but was unsuccessful.
Slaves had gone from comprising 20 percent of the city’s population in the mid-18th century to zero percent by 1840.
Hamilton himself rests in Trinity Churchyard in lower Manhattan, the location of the oldest settlements on the island. Although the African burial ground is less than a mile away from Trinity, when it was in use from the late 1600s up until 1794, the graveyard’s location fell outside the bounds of the actual city.
Blacks were forbidden from being interred within the city’s boundaries, so they were forced to choose a location that lay beyond the palisade. In the days before taxis and subways, traveling to the city limits could be a time-consuming affair. Slaves were also required to have a written pass in order to venture more than a mile from their homes (which was applicable to most traveling to the burial ground).
Previous Theories About The African Burial Ground
Although historians were aware the burial ground has existed since at least the 18th century (it was labelled as a “Negro burial ground” on a 1755 map), most believed, as one 1991 New York Times article put it, “that anything of archaeological value had been obliterated in the last two centuries.”
As it turned out, construction had actually helped preserve the African burial ground rather than destroy it. Because the original plot was located in a ravine, developers poured fill over it to level the landscape, thus ensuring the graves were protected by up to 25 feet of intervening soil from newer construction.
In one 1865 description of the African burial ground – in the Manual of the Corporation of the City of New-York – David T. Valentine offered some explanations as to the origins of the graveyard, although it is tinged with the racist sentiments of the time. Valentine wrote, “Though within convenient distance from the city, the locality was unattractive and desolate, so that by permission the slave population were allowed to inter their dead there.” Other than that, it is not known in exactly when or why the plot first began to be used as a gravesite.
Valentine also noted that the slaves practiced “their native superstitions and burial customs, among which was that of burying by night, with various mummeries and outcries. This custom was finally prohibited by the authorities from its dangerous and exciting tendencies among the blacks.”
While evidence from the graves does show that the slaves tried to maintain their traditional burial practices whenever possible, most show their occupants were buried facing west, a distinctly Christian tradition.
The laws of the time also did not permit burials to occur at night (which is the traditional time for burials in many African cultures), nor did it allow for more than 12 slaves to participate in funeral processions at a time, which would have severely limited the “mummeries and outcries” Valentine described.
The human remains revealed a wealth of information about the life of slaves in old New York. Most, as might be expected, showed signs of hard physical labor and malnutrition. After being examined, all of the remains we respectfully re-interred (each in an individual coffin hand-carved in Africa) in a “Rites of Ancestral Return” ceremony in 2003.
The African burial ground was declared a National Monument in 2006 and today also houses a memorial and museum dedicated to preserving the memory of some of New York’s earliest but forgotten residents.
Next, see these photos of the Great Depression’s forgotten black victims. Then learn about the Harlem Hellfighters – forgotten heroes of World War I.