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A bond for the manumission of a slave, 1757
Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America
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A Different Perspective on Slavery: Writing the History of African American Slave Women

An Introduction to Juneteenth

Juneteenth is the most widely recognized, long-lived Black commemoration of slavery’s demise. Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, when federal troops commanded by General George Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to proclaim freedom to the state’s Black residents. The Emancipation Proclamation itself, ending slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper), had taken effect two and a half years before, and in the interim, close to 200,000 Black men had enlisted in the fight. As one former enslaved man recalled, “the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free. . . . And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun] powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.”

Celebrations continued in 1866 with church services where ministers and educators reminded parishioners of the solemn beauty of the occasion, of their duty as emerging citizens, and their profound right in the pursuit of legal equality, themes that continue to resonate in Juneteenth commemorations. Juneteenth quickly became a counter-narrative to the displays of Confederate glorification of the Lost Cause.

Juneteenth pageants reminded audiences of slavery and revolts, the sorrow songs, abolitionism, Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, the Underground Railroad, Booker T. Washington, and northern philanthropy. Photographs of Juneteenth depict Black Civil War veterans, some in uniform. Pageants in the early twentieth century marking Juneteenth included “Born to be Free.” Even in a time of Jim Crow and violent terrorism, spirituals such as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” infused hope in dark times. Juneteenth celebrants enjoyed picnics, barbecues, baseball games and other sports. They decorated carts and later automobiles with flowers.

After a lull in such festivities in the World War II period, Juneteenth’s spread was amplified by the migration of Black Texans across the nation. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the organizers of the Poor People’s March connected their effort with Juneteenth. The march ended with a ceremony attended by about 50,000 at the Lincoln Memorial on June 19, 1968. In 1973, the Reverend C. Anderson Davis, former president of the Houston NAACP, began a campaign to revive Juneteenth as “Emancipation Day” in Texas. The Black Lives Matter movement further pushed the significance of Juneteenth and led to the establishment of a federal holiday in 2021.

Graham Hodges is the George Dorland Langdon Jr. Professor of History and Africana and Latin American Studies at Colgate University. He is the author of Slavery, Freedom, and Culture (1998), Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613–1863 (1999), and Black New Jersey: 1664 to the Present Day (2018).

Past Issues

The Escape of Black Women during the American Revolution

Illustration based on a runaway notice for a young enslaved woman named Jenny from the "New York Journal," December 17, 1782: Jenny, “a yellow Negro Girl,” wears a chintz gown “with a large flower and yellow stripes,” a pink coloured moreen petticoat, a “new black peeling bonnet,” under “a chip hat trimmed with gauze and feathers,” a white apron, and a “pair of blue worsted shoes with white heels”; she carries a piece of “new stamped linen, a purple flower and stripe ... She is very fond of dress … she has gone either to New York or Baltimore.” (Illustration by Eric H. Schnitzer)In 1961, Morgan State University historian Dr. Benjamin Quarles published the now classic study The Negro in the American Revolution, which became the definitive account of the role African Americans played in the War for Independence. As the historical profession marks the sixtieth anniversary of Dr. Quarles’s book and the upcoming sestercentennial of the Declaration of Independence, it is important to examine an often neglected aspect of the Revolutionary period: the escape of African American women who self-emancipated during the Revolutionary War. Including enslaved women in the story of American freedom does not simply add to what we know, it transforms our understanding of this period. Black women’s freedom was intertwined with the movement for American independence, and African American women followed the military conflict and were powerfully influenced by its outcome. The pronouncements of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation on November 7, 1775, and the Philipsburg Proclamation on June 30, 1779, promising freedom to enslaved people who would aid and assist the loyalists in the fight against the Continentals, led to the escape of thousands of enslaved women, men, and children. In fact, one-third of fugitives were enslaved women, according to historian Gary Nash.[1]

Enslaved women’s desire for freedom did not originate with the American Revolution. However, the Revolution amplified their quest for freedom. Enslaved women’s desire for freedom for themselves and their children propelled them to flee slavery during the Revolutionary War, a time when lack of oversight and the presence of British troops created opportunities for them to invoke the same philosophical arguments for liberty that White revolutionaries made in their own fierce struggle against oppression. Women sought refuge with the British because they recognized that their best chances for freedom resided with a British victory. In fact, forty percent of those who fled after the Philipsburg Proclamation were women. Women not only fled with family members, but also in groups without established kinship relations.

African Americans placed great emphasis on the rhetoric of the Revolution, particularly the right to life and liberty as espoused first by John Locke and later by Thomas Jefferson. Enlightenment rationalism was a powerful antislavery force that led to the first major challenge to American slavery. Thousands of enslaved men and women took advantage of the turmoil caused by the American Revolution to escape slavery, including those enslaved by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Motherhood and love of family often served as the impetus for enslaved women to escape. These women had as much incentive to run away as men did, and perhaps even more since they endured physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.

Women’s flight was prompted by efforts to protect their bodies against the violence and exploitation that was an everyday feature of their lived experience as well as to protect their children from the harmful effects of slavery. The average age of a self-emancipated woman was twenty-two; women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five predominate in runaway slave advertisements. Girls as young as thirteen escaped independently, and women as old as sixty-two escaped with their daughters and families. Women also ran away pregnant.

The stories of Margaret and Jenny reveal the precariousness of their lives and their resolve for freedom. Margaret escaped slavery twice in Baltimore, Maryland, first in 1770 and again in 1773. In her first escape, she wore men’s clothing and sought to conceal her identity by masquerading as a waiting boy to John Chambers, an escaped English convict servant. Margaret sought to escape by passing as both White and male, performing fugitivity in a way that Ellen Craft, another escaped slave, would do decades later.

Margaret’s actions indicate that she knew her “soul value.” According to historian Daina Ramey Berry, “soul value” refers to “an intangible marker that often defied monetization yet spoke to the spirit and soul” of who she was as a human being. Soul value “represented the self-worth of enslaved people.”[2] For some, like Margaret, this meant that she would not comply with slavery. The escape of Margaret and other bondwomen during the Revolutionary era constituted a major refutation of slavery. The American Revolution, which inspired enslaved and free African Americans to claim greater rights for themselves, created both psychological and physical freedom for those who “pretended to be free” or who simply fled to create their own liberty. Women ran away more frequently during the Revolutionary era than at any time before or after the war due to the breakdown of oversight and state authority. In addition to Margaret, Sarah, a pregnant woman who changed her name to Rachel, ran away with her six-year-old son, Bob. Rachel’s husband had joined the British army, and she intended to pass as a free woman.

Similarly, Jenny, eight months pregnant, ran away in September 1776 with her two-year-old daughter, Winney, from Monk’s Neck near Petersburg, Virginia. She and her daughter were described as “well dressed” by their enslaver. Jenny, who had been aware of Dunmore’s Proclamation, likely spent months planning her escape. Her enslaver noted that she would attempt to pass as a free woman and was likely headed to Richmond, Virginia, which had a large free Black population.

The ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness resonated with enslaved women like Rachel, who used the rhetoric of the Revolution to claim their right to freedom. Women heard about these ideals by listening to the conversations of their enslavers as well as through the slave grapevine that carried news from plantation to plantation and from city to city. The American Revolution brought into sharp focus the paradox of slavery and freedom. African American women contributed mightily to the story of American independence. They, too, believed in the independence of the individual. They valued in the most fundamental way what Thomas Jefferson and others would identify as inalienable rights.

Illustration based on a runaway notice for a young enslaved woman named Rachel from Purdy and Dixon's "Virginia Gazette," February 10, 1775: Rachel, a “Negro Woman … about 22 Years of age” wears two petticoats, “a blue and white flowered Linen Waistcoat, and a Felt Hat … and is apt to change her name.” (Illustration by Eric H. Schnitzer)The Revolution affirmed the idea that freedom was a universal birthright. Black women seized upon every opportunity to undermine the system of slavery through flight. Also of significance during this period were the leading theoreticians of the Revolution such as James Otis, Isaac Skillman, and Anthony Benezet who argued that enslaved people had every right to rebel against the system and that there could never be legal title in the ownership of another human being.

There were regional variations and similarities in the flight of enslaved women during the Revolution. Women who escaped from South Carolina and Georgia sought to escape to Florida, where for half a century the Spanish provided freedom and refuge for escaped slaves who reached St. Augustine. They also found refuge with British troops following the Southern Campaign of 1779. In Virginia and Maryland, enslaved women sought to reach Philadelphia, which was under the control of British forces in September 1777, as well as other northern destinations. In the northern and New England colonies, women sought to reach British forces during the early campaigns of the war and also endeavored to reach New York City. In each of these regions, fugitive women also sought to pass as free women.

Instead of viewing Black women at the margins of the American Revolution and abolitionism, it is imperative to see Black women as visible participants and self-determined figures who put their lives on the line for freedom. Black women have placed their lives on the line throughout history as evidenced by escapes from slavery, petitions to courts for freedom, written testimonies of racial violence, and organized protests. Black women, in fact, played an integral role in the expansion of abolitionism during the American Revolution. According to historian Patrick Rael, abolition in the United States occurred in two waves.[3] The American Revolution triggered the first wave and led to the abolition of slavery in the North. The second “radical” wave began with the development of immediate abolitionism enunciated by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831 and lasted until the end of the Civil War.

Karen Cook Bell is Associate Professor of History at Bowie State University and author of Running from Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2021). Follow her on Twitter at @kbphd08.

[1] Gary Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African-Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 27.

[2] Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), p. 6.

[3] See Patrick Rael, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777–1865 (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

The Declaration of Independence and the Long Struggle for Equality in America: An Introduction

A detail from a copy of the Declaration of Independence published by Peter Timothy in Charleston, South Carolina, August 1776 (Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC00959)Whatever else the Declaration of Independence encompassed—a proclamation of political sovereignty, an indictment against the King of England, an appeal for allies—its assertion that “all men are created equal” shines as the polestar of American history. Versions of the phrase predate Thomas Jefferson’s usage and he was no doubt influenced in his thinking by the writings of various Enlightenment philosophers: Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, among others. He was not alone. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote about “all men being originally equals.” Weeks before the Declaration of Independence appeared, planter George Mason stated in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.” Jefferson likely worked on the Declaration from a draft of the Virginia Declaration that appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette. In his hands, Mason’s formulation first became “all men are created equal & independent” and then “all men are created equal.”

Generations of Americans have wondered how slaveholders such as Mason and Jefferson could posit the equality of men and yet never free the people they had enslaved. A Doonesbury cartoon by G. B. Trudeau, published on July 4, 1976, exposed the contradiction in ways only a comic could. In the strip, the character Nate reads aloud the Declaration of Independence and Sammy, an enslaved man, wonders, “‘All men are created equal’?! Nate, does that mean what I think it does?” Nate answers, “Probably not, Sammy,” to which Sammy responds, “You mean Jefferson sold us out?”

What seems like inconsistency to us did not seem so to Jefferson and other Revolutionary slaveholders. Perhaps they believed born free of subjugation did not mean some could or should not be enslaved. They certainly feared the presence of free Blacks in America. They were mired in racial attitudes that saw Blacks as inferior and fostered a plantation economy that depended on slave labor. Jefferson understood that slavery was wrong and would destroy the nation, but he felt it was for future generations to deal with the problem.

Petition for freedom from "A Great Number of Blackes" to the Massachusetts Council and the House of Representative, January 1777 (Jeremy Belknap Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society)Although Jefferson did not include enslaved people in his meaning, they themselves did. For example, in January 1777, in a petition to the Massachusetts legislature, a group of enslaved people stated that they “have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unaliable [inalienable] Right to that freedom which the Grat Parent of the Unavers hath Bestowed equalley on all menkind.”[1]

They were not alone, and over time “all men are created equal” became a credo of the abolitionist movement. For example, in 1854, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator, proclaimed, “I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, ‘that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Hence, I am an Abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form—and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing—with indignation and abhorrence.”[2]

A pamphlet printing of Frederick Douglass's speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July," "Oration Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, July 5, 1852" (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC06829)No abolitionist exposed more fully the contradictions between the language of the Declaration and slavery than Frederick Douglass. In his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” delivered on July 5, 1852, to a large audience in Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, Douglass excoriated White Americans for their hypocrisy. He labeled their “shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery,” and denounced celebrations of independence as a sham. He quoted the Declaration and highlighted the inconsistency that despite its eloquence “you hold securely, in a bondage, which according to your own Thomas Jefferson, ‘is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,’ a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.” Your country, he emphasized, not his. The United States, he thundered, “is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”[3]

Women, too, embraced the principle of equality expressed in the Declaration. At a convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and attended by some men, including Frederick Douglass, a Declaration of Sentiments asserted, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: all men and women are created equal.” Stanton modeled her declaration directly on Jefferson’s and included a list of injuries that men had committed against women.

It would fall to Abraham Lincoln to make the latent idea of equality for all in the Declaration of Independence central to the meaning of America. He praised Jefferson as a man who had “the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”[4] For Lincoln, the Declaration was scripture. At Philadelphia, in 1861, he proclaimed, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” 5] The Gettysburg Address in 1863 anchored the United States on the principle that the Founding Fathers in 1776 (“four score and seven years ago”) created a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The war would bring an end to slavery and advance the struggle to make the promise of equality tangible and real.

That promise applied not only to color but to class, and in the late nineteenth century the populist movement cited the Declaration in support of its call for regulation and reform. The Omaha Platform, adopted on July 4, 1892, at the Peoples Party Convention, began by invoking the anniversary of the Declaration and appealing to farmers and workers for their cooperation in counteracting a rising social inequality that produced “the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.” Some saw the Omaha platform as a second Declaration of Independence.

The awareness of social inequality surged during the depression of the 1930s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for an economic bill of rights that would “assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”[6] It is fitting that his final message to the American people was prepared for celebrations of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.

The words “all men are created equal” would continue to inspire social movements to bring American life into alignment with the axioms expressed in the Declaration. Martin Luther King Jr. considered the Declaration a promissory note for the future. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in response to accusations that he was an extremist, he asked, “Was not Jefferson an extremist?” Standing before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, he proclaimed, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

From the moment those words appeared in the Declaration, some Americans have challenged the nation to make them reflect the condition of things. With passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments, as well as the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the country progressed toward greater equality. As long as the ideal exists, so too does the chance of living up to it. Jefferson once said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”[7] We are that future, and the words he wrote are always at the ready to inspire us.

Louis P. Masur is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. His most recent book is The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America (Oxford University Press, 2020).

[1] Lancaster Hill, Peter Bess, Brister Slenser, Prince Hall, et al., “The Petition of a great number of Negroes who are detained in a state of Slavery,” January 13, 1777. State House in Massachusetts Archives, vol. 212, p. 132.

[2] William Lloyd Garrison, No Compromise with Slavery. An Address Delivered in the Broadway Tabernacle, New York , February 14, 1854 (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1854), p. 5.

[3] Frederick Douglass, Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester . . . July 5, 1852 (Rochester: Lee, Mann & Co., 1852), pp. 20, 34, and 16.

[4] Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Henry L. Pierce and others, Springfield, Illinois, April 6, 1859.

[5] Abraham Lincoln, Address at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 22, 1861.

[6] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Economic Bill of Rights,” in the 1944 Annual Message to Congress, January 11, 1944.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, August 1, 1816.

Past Issues

"What We Leave the Earth": The African Burial Ground in New York City

In October 2021, the African Burial Ground National Monument commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the New York City slave cemetery’s rediscovery by the General Services Administration (GSA). In 1991, the GSA started construction on a federal building and unearthed the “Negro Burial Ground”—two centuries after the cemetery had closed. In the process, GSA desecrated some of the 419 ancestral remains they exhumed (a backhoe damaged twenty bodies). Though the US government requires federally funded projects to conduct archaeological/historical property surveys and include descendant communities in the process, GSA continued to build and barely complied with either requirement.

Black New Yorkers protested. The city’s first African American mayor, David Dinkins, sent GSA a cease-and-desist letter. GSA kept building and extracting and only temporarily halted construction when Illinois Congressperson Gus Savage and President George W. Bush intervened. African-descended community members subsequently and ceremonially re-interred those disturbed remains beside the completed federal building in 2003 (a decade earlier, the cemetery had been added to the National Register of Historic Places). GSA eventually financed the construction of a burial ground monument, but GSA’s federal edifice still rises above the bones of enslaved New Yorkers.

The African Burial Ground National Monument (Carol Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress)I grew up in New York City and attended local schools. I worked afternoons at One Liberty Plaza—then the original One World Trade Center—during high school, and also worked one college summer at One Hanover Square. I could have walked approximately fifteen minutes from each of those jobs and reached the African Burial Ground—this country’s oldest and largest slave cemetery, where roughly 15,000 ancestors were buried between 1712 and 1795 in a seven-acre plot. Yet I, a culturally curious Black New Yorker who had sauntered in the vicinity of that sacred space over a six-year period, had not known the cemetery existed until I reached my thirties. Nor had I known that Wall Street got its name from a wall that Dutch colonists had enslaved Africans construct in 1653. Nor had I known that colonial New York had the second-largest urban slave population, behind only Charleston, South Carolina—North America’s largest slaving port.

Both shock and reverence drove me to pen and paper, to history and song. Drove me to my go-to: poetry. To imaginatively excavate these enslaved ancestors, I wrote a collection of poems entitled Boneyarn (2021). I primed my creative pump by reading historical studies such as In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World by Judith Ann Carney (2002), New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan by Jill Lepore (2006), and The African Burial Ground in New York City: Memory, Spirituality, and Space by Andrea E. Frohne (2015). I made numerous pilgrimages to the African Burial Ground Monument, its black granite ancestral chamber and seven ancestral mounds.

In her oft-quoted “The Dash Poem,” Linda Ellis refers “to the dates on the tombstone” and observes, “what mattered most of all / Was the dash between those years.” These lines gave me pause because for 99.9 percent of the enslaved New Yorkers I wished to poetically resurrect, I knew neither the dates of their harrowing lives nor the dashes.

My research did not solve my problem. Books such as Joyce Hansen and Gary McGowan’s Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground (1998) documented exhumed ancestors’ approximate ages, genders, extraordinary bone stresses from heavy lifting, nutritional deficits, and likely causes of death. (Countless children under four died from overwork and poor diet.) But virtually no names; no dashes nor dates. Just bones.

Sometimes I came across anecdotes about enslaved individuals with names—such as a free-spirited petty thief, Caesar, who was hanged by colonists following the 1741 New York Slave Conspiracy. I pieced together snippets of Caesar’s life and assumed he was interred among those 15,000 bodies. But where? Rather than be hampered by the unanswerable, I decided that a cemetery can function as a deceased’s repository for a life lived. Hence, Boneyarn focuses on New York’s slave cemetery not only as hallowed ground but also as a point of creative and historical departure. A poetic Sankofa.

In my poems, I aim to transport readers to these long-forgotten horrors, to vividly portray this excruciating past with sensory and graphic immediacy: the abuse, the terror, the torture, the slave codes, individuals worked to death, forearms interred where shins should be.

Two kinds of poems figure prominently in my efforts. Fourteen “dialogue” pieces (all titled “Talking to the Bones” and written to thoughtfully engage an ancestor) find a contemporary speaker asking questions of eighteenth-century bones, such as those of a twenty-something enslaved woman. (Researchers determined that she had been shot and killed because of a musket ball found lodged in the remains of her rib cage.) The poem’s speaker concludes the exchange by asking the woman’s “bones,” “why only a right rib cage?” Her spirit replies: “What we leave the earth / when we leave the earth / is not ours to say.”

I could not locate any slave narratives penned by New York’s enslaved. Nor could I pinpoint where, for example, an enslaved New York City chimney sweep apprentice or cook is buried in the Negro Burial Ground. But I assume individuals such as these were interred there. So, how to poetically resurrect them?

I wrote compressed but full-bodied persona poems of less than forty lines each that magnified and rescued from near obscurity many slaves’ lives. In one poem, a disfigured chimney sweep apprentice states: “I’m what happens when da house breathe / out: sore black breath in a New York throat.” In another piece, Peggy, a cook toiling in a scalding cellar, declares: “I got dark a’thority. Some down below / and bit of up-above say so.” I believed that telling details in an eighteenth-century vernacular, which possessed an off-the-cuff, conversational quality, would create distinct individualities and enhance a reader’s grasp of an enslaved New Yorker’s experiences.

I turned to longer, narrative poems to capture New York slavery’s outsized injustices, such as when colonists burned at the stake and hanged thirty enslaved people following the 1741 Slave Conspiracy. In each lengthier piece, I strove to depict historically resonant figures. In the poem “Assignment” (about the 1788 Doctors’ Riot in which Columbia Medical School students robbed black bodies from graves), I write: “The dead / had no standing as property. Only two-legged real / estate could’ve properly been considered property.” In the poem “Auction,” I describe in unsettling, ironic lines the arrival of countless Africans in New York: “the squinting / whys in those abducted eyes: / what the ocean failed to answer: hell’s / first hello.” Some of my poems acknowledge the ancestors’ retention of African cultural traditions—including minkisi and Juba dances. In these poems, I honor them in ink.

In response to two centuries of silence, GSA’s complicated honoring of the site, and 15,000 unidentified bodies, I extended an imaginative hand to undertake an inventive exhumation and foreground enslaved New Yorkers’ inner lives and agonizing physical existence. In part, I created Boneyarn’s Black chorus to redress what I was not taught in my own backyard. To paraphrase the final lines of the poet Robert Hayden’s quasi-sonnet “Those Winter Sundays”: “What did I know? What did I know of my history’s austere and lonely offices?” With Boneyarn, I pray I paid the ancestors my poetic respects.


Boneyarn by David Mills, 2021After reading from Boneyarn, I ask my students to choose one of eight uncaptioned burial photos from Andrea Frohne’s African Burial Ground in New York City and Joyce Hansen and Gary McGowan’s Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence. I then ask the students to write freely about their photos. After that, I encourage them to imagine that they can “ask” the pictured “bones” the “Five Ws” (who, what, when, where, and why) about life and death during slavery. To do this exercise, students must closely examine the photos. Students’ responses should be grounded in history but also imaginative. Following the exercise, I share the facts behind each photo and ask participants if those facts alter their initial responses to the images.

David Mills, a poet, playwright, and educator, is the author of four books of poetry: Boneyarn (Ashland Poetry Press, 2021), a series of poems inspired by Manhattan’s African Burial Ground; After Mistic (New Feral Press, 2020); The Sudden Country (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2013), and The Dream Detective (Straw Gate Books, 2009). His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, Jubilat, Callaloo, Obsidian, Brooklyn Rail, Diode Journal, and Fence. He has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Breadloaf, the American Antiquarian Society, the Lannan Foundation, Arts Link, and other organizations.