New York City’s African Burial Ground

New York City’s reputation for growth and emphasis on new, bigger, and better has often resulted in the loss of historical architecture. Similarly, the passage of time has obscured significant aspects of the city’s diverse social history. The city’s growth occasionally serves the opposite function, however: it unearths previously forgotten and hidden parts of the city’s past. Such is the case with the African Burial Ground.

In 1991, the federal government was in the process of excavating a site just north of City Hall in preparation for a new administrative building. As the workers removed layer after layer of accumulated soil, they began exposing colonial-era graves. Research revealed that the location was part of the African Burial Ground, a site where free and enslaved African Americans in New York City buried their dead in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The discovery created quite a controversy. Some graves had been damaged by construction efforts before workers realized that the site contained human remains, and modern-day descendants of slaves believed that building on top of the cemetery was disrespectful.

Eventually, a compromise was reached. Archaeologists carefully removed 419 sets of human remains from the site, and those remains were sent to scholars at Howard University for study. (It’s believed that 15,000 or more people were originally buried throughout the full cemetery, which extended beyond the current building site.) After scholars learned as much as possible about what those remains tell us about African-American life in the New York colony, each set of remains was carefully placed in individual coffins, handmade by craftsmen from Ghana, and then interred on the grounds of the new African Burial Ground National Monument. The federal office building was eventually completed next door, and the first floor of that building now houses the monument’s Visitors’ Center.

The Visitors’ Center is very well done, educating visitors about a number of important and interesting themes. I’m not always a fan of Visitors’ Center introductory films, but the one here is excellent. It’s not very long (only 15-20 minutes), and definitely worth taking the time to see it.

One of the first things that grabs your attention is this life-sized burial scene, complete with audio. You can even sit on one of the benches located nearby, absorbing the solemnity of the burial of one slave family’s husband and father and another family’s infant child.

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As you explore further, you will learn more about the challenges that slaves faced in colonial New York City, including details about their working and living conditions. You will encounter a few slaves (as well as free African Americans) that we know more about because of historical records, and you will be able to read for yourself examples of the laws that were passed to maintain English colonists’ power over their African slaves.

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Artifacts such as this contemporary newspaper advertisement for runaway slaves were sobering.

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If you are interested in archaeology, you will find the parts of the exhibition that focus on the exhumed graves fascinating. The exhibit includes photos of each of the graves – here are just a few of them.

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Additionally, the exhibit demonstrates how much scholars were able to learn about the health, working conditions, etc. of each buried person by providing a lot more information about one individual, Burial No. 101.

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The outdoor monument is a peaceful, architecturally striking place. Its design is filled with multiple layers of meaning, from the mounds of earth covered in green grass, where the excavated remains were reburied, to African symbols and their translations, to various commemorations of the dead. Here are a few of the photos I took of the monument to give you a sense of what the space is like.

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Located only a short distance from City Hall, the African Burial Ground National Monument is easily reached by public transportation. A number of subway stations are located within walking distance of the monument and visitor’s center: take the 1, 2, 3, J, Z, A, or C trains to their respective Chambers Street stations; the 4, 5, or 6 to the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station; the E to the World Trade Center station; the N or R trains to City Hall; or the 2 or 3 to Park Place. The memorial’s visitor center is located on the first floor of the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway. The memorial is located behind the building and is accessible from Duane Street. The African Burial Ground National Monument and Visitors’ Center is free.

28 thoughts on “New York City’s African Burial Ground

    1. Yes, John – I think that the attention paid to sites like this, the push to tell more of this part of American history and do it well, contributes to an ongoing dialogue about the lingering effects of slavery and its aftermath.

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    1. Glad you liked the post, Anabel. I had to include some of those laws – they really focus our attention on how restrictive slave life truly was. This is one of those special NYC places that you really have to seek out, as it unfortunately tends to be overshadowed by more tourist-oriented places. It’s definitely worth a visit if you get to New York.

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  1. Thank you for this wonderful piece. I’d been following the story of the burial ground’s discoveries for many years and it’s wonderful to be able to see how the site has evolved. The memorial is well done – very striking and poignant.

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  2. An unexpected and illuminating post. I’m a bit uneasy about the treatment of Burial 101 – the reduction of a person to a diagram – although the power of bones to tell a story is fascinating. I’m also intrigued by the tight triangle shape of part of the monument – what is its significance do you know?

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    1. The exhibit for Burial 101 was very interesting. I actually found that it humanized the man whose remains are the focus. By looking at his bones and teeth, they were able to learn about his age and general physical condition at the time of his death. He had scars on the exterior of his leg bones that showed possible prior injury, likely made worse by malnutrition. There were ridges on the lower back part of his skull that showed that he had worked very hard, as enlarged muscles in his neck would create those ridges. The scholars also noted that his teeth had been filled, a practice usually done in Africa. They speculated that he might have come from Africa as a child, although they could not confirm that.

      I found this description of the design of the monument’s entry from an old BBC article: “The entry to the monument is called The Door of Return – a nod to the name given to the departure points from which slaves were shipped from Africa to North America.” (Website link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7031142.stm)

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      1. It really is a biography in bone. Thank you for the detail and for the info about the triangle. I visited Jerash when I was on a dig in Jordan many moons ago: one of the dig academics was an expert in skeletal remains and I learnt then how much information bones yield, especially about disease one doesn’t associate with bones. I still feel that it’s a bit sensitive, maybe because of the controversy in Australia about returning ancestral remains from museums where they were taken as curiosities or for anthropological research.

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      2. I understand that sensitivity. I think in this case that people found it more acceptable, as it was truly an attempt to tell an important history of people who have been otherwise ignored, and the remains were returned to their earlier location and treated with dignity. The full plan was worked out before anything was done. There was a multi- day ceremony to inter them, and each year on the anniversary there is another full-day ceremony.

        I have to imagine seeing an archaeological dig in Jordan had to have been fascinating!

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    1. Thank you, Meg. That’s a great compliment. Your questions and comments help me to see what more I could have added to the original blog post as well for those places that have such complexity. I will see what I can do to apply what I’ve learned from our conversation in my next post for a location like this!

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  3. Thank you for this moving post Susan. We did the NYC Slavery and Underground Railroad walking tour with Insideout Tours it was very interesting part of our holiday and we are glad we took the time away from the main tourist attractions to do this.We finished at the sacred monument, seeing your pictures above its a shame we missed to visit the visitors centre. It’s things like this that make you think a thousands things, that you what to say a thousands things that in the end you still continue to think.

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