New York City’s African Burial Ground

The African Burial Ground upon its opening in 2007. (Photograph courtesy of Michael L. Blakey.)In 1991, construction workers in lower Manhattan unearthed an African burial ground, the final resting place of some 15,000 enslaved African captives brought to New York in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to build the city and provide the labor for its thriving economy. The discovery sparked controversy as the African American public held protests and prayer vigils over the following two years in order to stop the federal (US General Services Administration) building project that nearly destroyed the site. A US congressional hearing led by Illinois Congressman Gus Savage would result in agreements between New York Mayor David Dinkins, Savage, and Senator Alphonse D’Amato that compelled the US GSA to cease construction on part of the site at 290 Broadway. Public discussions ensued for another two years to determine what would be done to commemorate the lives of the African builders of colonial New York City.

As the new principal investigator and project director, based at the Cobb Laboratory of Howard University in Washington, DC, I had a unique opportunity to devise an extensive research plan and a clientage model for public engagement with the descendant African American community. The African Burial Ground Project would acknowledge the ethical rights of its client “descendant community” to determine the disposition of the cemetery, acceding to their basic human right to deny research in favor of funerary rites and burial. Yet my team offered their scholarly expertise to uncover that community’s history if requested to do so. A formal Federal Advisory or “Steering” Committee and other African Americans held hearings with the Project which solicited research questions and explained research methodologies developed to address them. These sophisticated public questions centered on 1) the origins of the site, 2) physical evidence of quality of life, 3) biological and cultural transformations, and 4) the modes of resistance of enslaved Africans at the origins of the United States.

The Project’s interdisciplinary research involved skeletal biological, genetics, archaeological, and historical studies that were framed within a broad African diasporic context for understanding the lifetime experiences of the people who were enslaved and buried in New York. New methods for the use of ancient mitochondrial DNA and bone chemistry were developed by the Project in order to answer the new questions offered by its “ethical client.” It was the first large study to utilize the Paleopathology Standards using drafts of the Field Museum’s proceedings, which would be published in 1994. These methods constituted the standardization of demographic and epidemiological observations in the human skeleton, recently necessitated by Native Americans’ successful creation of burial site legislation in 1990. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) gave their culturally affiliated groups the right to rebury 18,000 American Indian skeletons at the Smithsonian Institution and other federally managed facilities. With the Steering Committee’s approval, the African Burial Ground Project, therefore, coordinated extensive research and the humane retention of the sacred nature of the site through twelve years of study (1994–2006), a dramatic two-day reburial ceremony at the Manhattan site in 2003, and the creation of a US National Monument and Visitor Center in 2007 and 2009.

Studying a population of 419 individuals’ skeletons—the largest non-Native sample of Americans who died prior to the turn of the twentieth century—the Project used an exhaustive range of skeletal biological methods, producing a database containing more than 200,000 observations of genetics, morphology, age, sex, growth and development, muscle development, trauma, nutrition, and disease. The research team included nine laboratories and universities, 200 students and technicians, and thirty leading PhDs, at a cost of approximately six million dollars. Led by African American and other diasporic scholars, it was also the most racially diverse archaeological project in the United States, with expertise covering West and Central Africa, the Caribbean, and the eastern United States.

The bones revealed an unmistakable biocultural connection: physical wear and tear of an entire community brought on by the social institution of slavery. We now know, based on this study, that life for Africans in colonial New York was characterized by poor nutrition, grueling physical labor that enlarged and often tore muscles, and death rates that were unusually high for children (approximately 40 percent of deaths). Infant mortality was estimated at more than twice that of the English in New York. Many fifteen- to twenty-five-year-old young adults died soon after arriving on slaving ships or receiving adult work regimes.

Approximately 2 percent lived beyond fifty-five years of age. Church records show strikingly different mortality trends for the Europeans of New York: About eight times as many English as Africans lived past fifty-five, and fewer Europeans or white Americans died at all ages with the exception of those dying at around the age of twenty-five. Skeletal research also showed that those Africans who died as children were much more likely to have been born in New York than those who died as adults. Evidence of stunted growth was frequent in these children as was exposure to high levels of lead pollution. Those who had been born in Africa (and were distinguishable because they had filed teeth) showed low exposure to lead during childhood and somewhat less evidence of disrupted growth than those who were enslaved as children in New York. Natural population increase was non-existent owing to poor health of enslaved women in New York and high infant mortality. In this respect, this northern colonial city was very similar to the Caribbean, to which its economy was tied, during an open trans-Atlantic trade in human captives when those who were overworked could be easily replaced. The community’s growth occurred only as a result of continuous forced migration from Africa, since not enough children survived to allow the population to grow on its own. This evidence of harsh conditions is consistent with the idea that slave holders treated African people as though they were disposable during the period prior to 1808 when trans-Atlantic trade was legal and brisk.

Individuals buried in the African Burial Ground came from warring African societies and empires that included Calibar, Asante, Benin, Dahomey, Congo, Madagascar, and many other societies. Wars between these large, complex societies were exacerbated by economies that exploited the European demand for “human chattel” which war captives generated. Those who reached New York resisted their enslavement through rebellion, and they resisted their dehumanization by carefully burying their dead and preserving what they could of their cultures. Thus the African Burial Ground can be viewed as the first institution these New York Africans were able to build and preserve during their enslavement.

One of our discoveries required an interdisciplinary and diasporic framework to tell, and brings together elements of all four research questions. Census data show a significantly greater number of women than men in the years which followed the two most violent African rebellions (1712 and 1741) in New York. Based on historical documentation, we also showed a new preference for the importation of women and children at those times, associated with European slave-holders’ attempts to stem rebellion associated with excess numbers of men, adaptation to urban occupational changes, and efforts to reduce costs. The skeletal biological result? The linea aspera on a femur from the African Burial Ground. (Photograph courtesy of Michael L. Blakey.)We examined a muscle attachment called the linea aspera in the back of the femur (thigh bone) which grows under persistent strain of walking, lifting, and other labor-related behavior. At the beginning of the eighteenth century one-quarter of African women had enlarged linea aspera. By the time of the War of Independence three-quarters of women showed the enlarged attachment associated with arduous work, about the same frequency shown for African men throughout the century. It seems clear that the shift toward forced migration of women and children to increase the profits and control of slavery put an ever-increasing work load on the heads, backs, and thighs of women.

Slavery ended in New York in 1827, although the Fugitive Slave Act allowed humans to be considered as property and held in New York City until the Civil War and Thirteenth Amendment ended it for all, with the exception of prisoners. We continue to struggle today with the consequences of this exception. In a sense, the New York African struggle for human rights continued during the 1990s when African Americans pressed to save the cemetery from destruction. The US GSA that built part of its building at 290 Broadway was disallowed its complete building plan and a “plaque at the site.” It was instead forced by public pressure to install a national monument—the first national monument dedicated to the early enslaved and free ancestors of the African American people upon whose labor the economic foundations of the nation were built. An 8,000-square-foot interpretive and educational center replaced an initial proposal for 2,000 square feet in the building that stands on part of the cemetery. Here the information derived from the anthropological project (2,500 pages in three volumes published by Howard University Press in 2009) is made available to the public under the management of the National Park Service. In 2003 the skeletal remains were returned to the Burial Ground from Howard University in Washington, DC. A series of powerful ceremonies, called “Rites of Ancestral Return,” marked their trip through six cities between Washington and New York, and hundreds of schoolchildren and parents marched in the final burial procession on Broadway. The Project’s engagement (eg, its ability to ask and follow the people most affected by the site and its history) provided a channel even for choices of language, like the term “enslaved Africans,” which is rapidly replacing the term “slave” in the heritage community. Science, politics, religion, and other cultural institutions worked together, each with its own part in re-establishing New York’s African Burial Ground as an important place for remembering how we came to be as we are today.

Michael L. Blakey is National Endowment of the Humanities Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies, and American Studies, and the director of the Institute for Historical Biology, at the College of William and Mary. He is the editor, with Lesley M. Rankin-Hill, of The Skeletal Biology of the New York African Burial Ground, Volume I of The New York African Burial Ground: Unearthing the African Presence in Colonial New York (Howard University Press, 2009), and the co-author of “Political Economy of African Forced Migration and Enslavement in Colonial New York: An Historical Biology Perspective” (New Directions in Biocultural Anthropology, ed. Molly K. Zuckerman and Debra L. Martin, Wiley-Blackwell, 2016).